Italy’s government has helped install a new prosecutor at the EU’s financial crime-fighting agency over the recommendation of outside experts, prompting criticism that Rome is threatening the body’s credibility.
The appointment of Andrea Venegoni to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) came as part of a package of five new prosecutors that EU countries approved on Tuesday.
While most of the appointments didn’t raise eyebrows, Italy’s choice is drawing opprobrium after Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government pushed for Venegoni despite an independent panel of judiciary experts ranking him last among Italy’s three candidates. The panel was charged with evaluating not only whether the applicants had relevant experience but also if their judicial independence is beyond doubt.
Still, Italy requested the Council of the EU, the body representing EU countries that made the final decision, back Venegoni — and it did. The Council, which is not bound to the panel’s ranking and has the final say, followed Italy’s wish without publicly providing any reasoning.
Two years since its creation, EPPO has shown that it is able to carry out major investigations and get results. But critics say Venegoni’s appointment represents a threat for the office, which must guard against suspicion of undue influence from EU member countries in order to maintain its credibility.
EPPO is the independent body responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes against EU financial interests. Italy’s prosecutor, while part of the EPPO, would have significant powers with regard to investigations conducted in his country of origin.
EPPO’s spokesperson Tine Hollevoet told POLITICO: “The decision on the appointment of the new European Prosecutors is the prerogative of the Council and the EPPO is not at all involved in this.”
A spokesperson for the Italian government and Andrea Venegoni did not respond to a request for comment.
Ahead of the Council’s vote, 14 Italian prosecutors wrote to EPPO head Laura Codruța Kövesi to warn her that Venegoni’s nomination could lead to a situation where “the Italian Office of Eppo and the European Public Prosecutor Office itself could appear not fully autonomous and independent, with serious consequences on the reputation of EPPO,” according to a letter seen by POLITICO and first reported by Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.
This comes after months of tensions between the current government and the country’s judiciary in Italy, which culminated in a clash between Italy’s Justice Minister Carlo Nordio, himself a former judge, and the powerful magistrates’ union over a mooted reform to abolish conflict of interest offenses for public officials.
In the past, Belgium, Bulgaria and Portugal have also faced backlash after endorsing the lowest-ranked candidates for top prosecutorial jobs at EPPO, amid criticism that they sought to weaken the judiciary body. One of the Portuguese candidates even filed a request to annul the appointment at the Court of Justice for the EU — and lost.
The top-ranked Italian candidate, Stefano Castellani, who is also the current coordinator of the EPPO offices in Italy, is now seeking access to documents on the Council’s motivation, according to a senior diplomat and two Italian judiciary officials who requested anonymity because they are not allowed to speak publicly on the matter. The request for documents has so far not been answered. Castellani is now considering requesting the EU’s top court overturn this decision.
Contacted, Castellani declined to provide comment.
One of the Italian judiciary officials said of Castellani’s attempt to overturn the Council’s decision at the ECJ that the court usually takes 14 to 16 months for such decisions and “the chances to win the case are extremely slim because the Council is the appointing authority and has large discretionary power.”
The Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Each of the 22 participating EU member countries has a prosecutor in EPPO. In this partial renewal, four other prosecutors have been appointed: Nikos Paschalis of Greece, Anne Pantazi Lamprou of Cyprus, Lithuania’s Gedgaudas Norkūnas and Austria’s Ursula Schmudermayer.
Three other prosecutors should be appointed by the end of July for Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Jacopo Barigazzi and Gregorio Sorgi contributed reporting.