Updated 7.25pm, adds government statement

Malta is delaying the operational set-up of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) through its failure to nominate three eligible candidates to sit on its College of Prosecutors.

Each EU member state which has joined the EPPO has to nominate three candidates for the position of European prosecutor, one of whom will be appointed from each country by the European Council after being interviewed by an independent selection panel. Together with the European chief prosecutor, they will form the EPPO College.

The EPPO was established to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU’s financial interests, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud.

A spokesman for the EPPO confirmed to Times of Malta that the government’s failure to nominate eligible candidates was having a knock-on effect on its plan to get up-and-running by the end of this year.

The spokesman said the EPPO is “concerned” by the delay in appointing the EPPO College, which he said is caused by Malta’s failure to propose three eligible candidates for the position of European prosecutor.

“Our initial timeline counted on the EPPO College being in place last summer and in any case at the end of 2019, for the EPPO to be able to start operations at the end of this year.

“As long as the EPPO College is not appointed, crucial steps in the establishment of the EPPO cannot take place and the EPPO cannot start to operate,” the spokesman lamented.

Without Malta’s nomination, the EPPO will be unable to adopt its internal rules of procedure, security and financial rules, as well as other administrative tasks such as rules on transparency and access to documents, the spokesman said.

It will also be unable to make other key appointments within the EPPO.

The EPPO is headed by Laura Kövesi, a Romanian prosecutor with a strong reputation for cracking down on corruption.

Malta had declined to join the EPPO in 2017 but reversed its decision after an international spotlight was cast on the government’s failure to fight corruption following the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

It had said in October 2017 that the decision not to join the EPPO was based on “sound technical reasons” based on the principle of subsidiarity, where countries have a right to keep certain sectors under its control.

Five months later, then justice minister Owen Bonnici announced a change of heart and Malta’s participation in the EPPO was formally approved in August 2018.

Two calls for applications were published in the Government Gazette last year, requesting candidates to put forward their names.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a Times of Malta request for comment about the delay in nominating eligible candidates.

Of the 27 EU member states, 22 opted to join the EPPO.

Government statement

In a statement on Sunday, the government said Malta was already actively participating in the EPPO, together with 22 other countries, within the process for the establishment of the office .

It said it was not true that the country's position had ever changed. The Maltese government acted with prudence, in the national interest, and monitored the situation as it evolved before committing to joining the office. This was the same stance adopted by many other states.

It said that following two public calls, and the verifications that ensued, it transpired that the country would face significant challenges, also given its size, to identify three individuals suitable for the role whose names would be forwarded to the European Commission for further scrutiny.

The ministry was in regular contact with the European Commission for a solution in this sense, and a conference call between Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and the European Commissioner for Justice was scheduled to discuss and resolve the matter.

The government said that following the announcement and publication of the Constitutional reforms based on the Venice Commission recommendations, the government was further committed to strengthening the national structures against corruption, not only on a European level, but mainly on a local level, to further enhance the rule of law and governance nationally.

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