Romania’s campaign against Laura Codruța Kövesi

Romania’s campaign against Laura Codruța Kövesi

Laura Codruța Kövesi, the former head of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), has secured many high-profile convictions in her career. Now her own government is blocking her path to becoming the EU’s chief prosecutor.   

Powerful opponents

Laura Codruța Kövesi is Romania’s best-known prosecutor. However, she is experiencing huge resistance from her own government to being appointed Head of the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). The European Parliament nominated her for the role to investigate cross-border VAT crime and offences committed using the EU’s budget. To stop her appointment, the Justice Minister announced that he would write to his counterparts in other EU countries to inform them of her past transgressions. Her accusations include; bribery, false testimony and abuse of office. The newly-created government body responsible for investigating magistrates were the main alleged in these offences.

Kövesi was sacked as head of the DNA in July 2018. Justice Minister, Tudorel Toader, had been calling for her removal for months, on the grounds that she had abused her authority by forcing her prosecutors to pursue high-profile targets. He also accused her of damaging Romania’s reputation by making false assertions in her international press interviews that the rule of law is under threat. Toader’s comments caused protests to break out in cities across Romania. Thousands of people participated in a protest in the capital, Bucharest. An online petition asking President Klaus Iohannis to block Kövesi’s dismissal attracted 87,000 signatures.

President Iohannis did initially refuse to remove Kövesi from her position. However, the government challenged his refusal in the Constitutional Court and won, forcing President Iohannis to comply. Mrs Kövesi received a travel ban in March. However, this was soon lifted by the Supreme Court on 4th April.

Accusations of political bias

The dismissal reflects a grudge from the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). Kövesi has prosecuted several important members of the PSD. The party’s leader, Liviu Dragnea, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in 2018 for having two PSD employees ‘hired’ by a child protection agency so that they received their salaries from the agency rather than party funds.

In 2015, former PSD leader Victor Ponta became the first sitting Romanian Prime Minister to go on trial for corruption after Kövesi’s DNA charged him with fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. Ponta was later forced to resign amid mass anti-government demonstrations sparked by a deadly fire at a nightclub. Protesters pointed to institutional corruption as the reason of the venue’s poor safety. This accusation proved difficult for Ponta to fight while he was on trial for corruption-related offences. Despite these scandals, the PSD won the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Members of the PSD have regularly accused DNA of political bias, claiming that it unduly focuses its attention on their party, rather than the rival National Liberal Party (PNL). They have portrayed Kövesi as part of a ‘deep state’ plot against the government. President Iohannis’ efforts to block Kövesi’s firing fit this narrative, as he himself is a former member of the PNL.

Why the European Parliament chose Kövesi

The question is, why has the European Parliament nominated such a controversial figure as the frontrunner for the post? Simply put, Kövesi achieved major results in her 5 years as head of the DNA. Her record is all the more impressive given that Romania is considered to be one of the most corrupt in the EU. Under Kövesi, DNA oversaw many cases against high-ranking officials, including a Prime Minister and a former Prime Minister. Such convictions are rare in Romania. Indeed, she has regularly earned high praise from senior EU officials for her efforts.

The European Parliament’s nomination of Kövesi also seems to be a calculated move to put pressure on Romania’s current government. Many European officials are sceptical about the government’s reasoning for Kövesi’s removal.

Romania’s illiberal turn

Kövesi’s removal has been accompanied by controversial judicial reforms. There now appears to be part of a pattern of easing the sentences for corruption offences in Romania.

In 2017, the government tried to reduce the penalties for official misconduct where the damages amounted to less than 200,000 lei (47,000 USD). This law was eventually scrapped after protests were held across Romania. The protest in Bucharest was especially large, attracting 150,000 people.

Regardless, further judicial reforms followed in 2018. The founding of the Special Section for the Investigation of Crimes Committed by Magistrates was particularly notable. This new institution investigates abuses by magistrates and reports directly to Justice Minister Toader, rather than to the independent general prosecutor, has now instigated charges against Kövesi. These judicial reforms triggered yet more protests. Demonstrators claimed that the changes gave more power to the ruling party, at the expense of the judiciary.

Response of the EU

The European Union heavily criticised the changes, branding them “negative steps calling into question the progress made in the past 10 years” and demanding that Romania “suspend immediately the implementation of the Justice laws”. Finally, in January 2019 the government announced an emergency decree, allowing people convicted of corruption offences since 2014 to appeal against their convictions. This timescale directly challenges many of the convictions secured by DNA under Kövesi’s leadership. The law will benefit several high-profile politicians, most notably PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who cannot currently run for Prime Minister due to his suspended jail term from a 2015 vote-rigging case. This decree will allow him to challenge his conviction.

Ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta himself has now left the PSD. He claims that the PSD is imitating Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s illiberal Fidesz party. European institutions have constantly chided the Romanian government for eroding democratic norms. Kövesi’s nomination represents another warning to Romania’s government. Her appointment will present a real challenge.


The Romanian government will continue to lobby strongly against Kövesi’s appointment as head of the EPPO. PSD leader Liviu Dragnea is already under investigation for misusing EU funds. The prospect of Kövesi receiving an EU budget to investigate this case, in particular, will no doubt greatly concern him and his party. However, Kövesi’s own legal challenges may prevent her from taking the post. The Romanian government will certainly emphasise that these cases make her an inappropriate candidate.

The battle in Romania against the government’s judicial reforms, symbolized by Kövesi’s dismissal, will continue. Although the protests have mostly faded away, President Iohannis has declared a referendum on the judicial reforms for 26 May. This will keep the issue in the public eye. A poor turn out will play into the governments hands by invalidating the referendum. This eventuality could demoralize those opposed to the reforms and end the outcry for the time being. Nevertheless, reversing the judicial reforms is a useful rallying point for the opposition in the next elections, especially with the support from the EU through sustained criticism of the current government.

In conclusion

The EU will continue to criticise the corrupt elements of Romania’s government. The European Parliament is leading the way by pushing for Kövesi’s appointment. It has also backed plans to restrict access to the EU budget for governments that undermine the rule of law. This includes the EU’s cohesion policy funding that aims to close the gap between richer and poorer member states. Such funding makes up 45% of public investment in Romania.  However, it is still not clear if the EU will take punitive action. This is because empowering the EU to reprimand a member state is a contentious topic not to mention a long and difficult procedure. There is no guarantee EU will sanction Romania in a significant capacity despite the European Parliament’s support.

Meanwhile, Kövesi is becoming a Europe-wide poster child of anti-corruption. She has won the support of the families of journalists who were murdered in Slovakia and Malta after investigating corruption. Nevertheless, she faces stiff competition for the position of head of the EPPO from France’s Jean-François Bohnert, who enjoys more support from the member states. He would certainly be a less controversial choice. The EU appointing an individual so disliked by the government of a member state would set a precedent that many European governments would prefer to avoid. Kövesi may not be worth the headache.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.