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European Parliament backs European Public Prosecutor's office

The European Union is a step closer to creating a European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) designed to investigate fraudulent use of EU tax-payer's money.

The European Parliament has voted in favour of the European Commission's proposal to set up the office, which would have the exclusive task of investigating, prosecuting and bringing to judgement crimes against the EU budget.

The move follows concerns at the Commission that investigation and conviction rates for fraud against EU resources vary greatly across the EU. Statistics released by the European Parliament show that only 46% of cases referred to member states are followed up by their national judicial authorities. EU-wide, the conviction rate of these is just 42%.

The move has faced resistance in some quarters. Last year, 14 parliaments in 11 member states attempted to repeal the proposal in a so-called yellow card procedure, raising concerns that it might not comply with the principle of subsidiarity – the principle that action should be taken at the most local government level that is appropriate, be that European, national, regional or local. After reviewing the proposal, the Commission stated that it did comply with the principle of subsidiarity because the EU budget can be better protected against fraud by measures at EU level.

The proposals will not take effect in the UK or Ireland, after both states decided not to opt in to the measures. In a written statement to the House of Commons this week, home secretary Theresa May said that the UK government "believes the creation of the EPPO to be unnecessary."  British conservative MEP Timothy Kirkhope, who voted against the proposal, said that the EU-wide prosecutor is a path towards a continent-wide criminal justice system, according to the euobserver.

Following the European Parliament vote European Commission justice commissioner Viviane Reding and Algirdas Semeta the EU anti-fraud commissioner, issued a joint statement.

"Today’s vote by the European Parliament is good news for Europe’s taxpayers and bad news for criminals," it said. "The European Public Prosecutor’s Office will make sure that every case of suspected fraud against the EU budget is followed up so that criminals are brought to justice. This will deter fraudsters who might otherwise get away with their crimes, and it will save taxpayers’ money."

Reding and Semeta urged EU ministers to maintain the momentum of the project and move forward with their discussions in the Council in order to ensure the office can be operational in 2015.

"Whether the UK likes it or not the creation of a European Public Prosecutors Office is another step closer and is another example of the increasing appetite to investigate and prosecute fraud," said Barry Vitou, a white collar crime expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

The vote in favour of the EPPO follows similar endorsements by the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE).

The proposal also won backing from the EU Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) last month. Reding said at the time: "A Union budget deserves Union-wide protection. We cannot remain idle when criminals try to defraud on taxpayers' money. A true European Public Prosecutor's Office can help us effectively clamp down on fraudsters everywhere in the EU."

Ministers at the Justice Council also showed strong support for the aims of the single EU public prosecutor's office at an orientation debate on the key issues earlier this month.

The EPPO would deal solely with "crimes affecting the EU budget" said a statement issued by the European Parliament. It's role would be to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment those suspected of fraudulent use of EU money.

An outline of the proposals issued by the parliament states that EPPO would have a decentralised structure which would be integrated into member states' national judicial systems. Member states would have delegated European Prosecutors who would carry out the investigations and prosecutions in the respective member state, with a team of national staff. National law would be applied to the cases. To ensure a uniform approach throughout the EU, the individual state prosecutors would be coordinated by the European Public Prosecutor. Officials say this would be vital when dealing with cross-border crimes. National courts would be entrusted with the judicial review, meaning questions on the European Public Prosecutors' acts could be challenged before them. Some acts of investigation would require prior judicial authorisation.

The parliament said that suspects investigated by EPPO would enjoy "stronger rights than currently exist under national systems" in relation to procedural rights. This would include the right to interpretation and translation, the right to information and access to case materials, the right of access to a lawyer in case of detention, the right to legal aid and the right to collect evidence.

The EPPO proposal is now set to go before member states, where it would normally require unanimous support to be adopted. But if the commission does not get unanimity, it is expected to still go ahead with the plans under the “enhanced co-operation” procedure, which says just nine EU countries can launch new EU initiatives.

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