Exclusive Interview with MEP Ramona Strugariu: Corruption, Tax Fraud and Media Freedom in the EU

The Pandora Papers and money laundering cases across the continent have called for increased attention from European institutions. VoteWatch contacted MEP Ramona Strugariu, who is very active on these issues and making efforts to strengthen the EU’s position on the matter. Identified as one of the top bridge builders in the European Parliament by VoteWatch, she also supports the Anti-SLAPP initiative for media freedom.

VoteWatch Europe: Our previous report on bridge-builders in the European Parliament analyses which individual MEPs are the most open to collaboration and the keenest on developing parliamentary networks with their colleagues from other political groups or nationalities. You were found to be one of the top bridge-builders (9th in our ranking). Are you surprised by our findings? What are the challenges that MEPs face during their first term, when trying to form alliances in the Parliament?

Ramona Strugariu: It was of course a pleasant surprise to find myself in such a good position in your ranking. In my daily parliamentary work, I am keenly aware that you can only achieve your political goals and fulfill the mandate given by the voters if you build bridges with other colleagues from other political groups and other Member States. But appearing in this ranking is a form of recognition of my efforts and for that I am very happy.

I think one of the biggest challenges an MEP faces during their first term is realising at what point compromise is important in the European Parliament. For each text adopted, each piece of legislation, we have to try to include, as much as possible, the other groups. Because, in the end, we have to find solutions that take into account the situation of the citizens in every corner of Europe. Another challenge that I could think of is the necessity of quickly identifying potential partners for reaching one’s political goals. And I think here I had an advantage in working beforehand as a political advisor for an MEP, as I was already familiar with the procedures, main interlocutors and their role in the political and legislatives processes. Finally, I think it is very important to realise that outside the legislative process itself, there are a million ways to raise attention, put issues on the table, build political pressure for the issues that truly matter for us and for European citizens. For instance, together with colleagues from all major political groups, we have set up an informal Media Working Group that I am co-chairing, which coordinates initiatives seeking to help journalists endangered in the EU and beyond or finding common lines on the legislative initiatives discussed in the area of media freedom.

VoteWatch Europe: How do you interpret Romania’s progress in fighting against corruption in line with the latest Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report and recommendations? Do you think Romania is getting ready to leave this mechanism?

Ramona Strugariu: The introduction of the CVM for Romania was the result of a compromise that allowed my country to join the EU in 2007, even if at that time everybody was well aware that considerable progress still needed to be made in the fields of judicial reform and the fight against corruption. CVM is thus not only about fighting corruption but also about reforming the judiciary. The two areas are logically and intrinsically linked. One cannot seriously expect a country to be effective in fighting corruption if the justice system is not functioning well and if it is captured by political or vested interests. The CVM, which was always thought of as a transitional mechanism, is based on objective criteria and thorough, periodical analysis from the Commission on the progress made. The benchmarks for Romania deal with the effectiveness and transparency of the judicial system, key institutions in areas like integrity and the fight against corruption at all levels, as well as corruption prevention.

The least that can be said about Romania’s progress in the areas of fighting corruption and judicial reform is that, unfortunately, progress was not as steady and linear as everybody would have expected. Quite the contrary, developments in Romania in 2017-2019 have shown that the process can be reversed. The ruling Socialists initiated in that period a series of changes to the justice system – including a move to clip the wings of the country’s anti-corruption unit, which set Romania’s progress back. These actions have sparked a series of massive street protests, the largest my country has experienced since the revolution of 1989 that toppled the communist regime. I, like many Romanians, have taken to the streets and I can tell you that we were very grateful that the EU institutions – Commission, Parliament- were closely following the situation and that we had the CVM that recorded the negative developments and made concrete recommendations to address them.

The latest CVM Report, published on the 8th of June 2021, takes stock of the evolutions since October 2019 and assesses progress on 12 recommendations made in January 2017, and eight additional recommendations from November 2018. It registers a positive trend, the Commission welcoming the fact that a renewed impetus has been given in 2021 to reform and to reverse the backtracking of 2017-19.

In May 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the CVM’s recommendations are binding obligations and that it can only be lifted when all the benchmarks applying to Romania are satisfactorily met. So I would say that is entirely up to the Romanian authorities when the CVM is lifted. The real question for me becomes then: is there enough political will in Romania to address the remaining shortcomings and repair the harm that has been done? For the time being, the jury is still out. But the recent history of the failed attempts to reform the justice sector during the period when my party, USR, was part of the former government coalition in Romania makes me a bit pessimistic about it. The key words in the latest CVM reports are that progress needs to remain steady, what has been happening lately is anything but at the moment.

Finally, I would like to mention the fact that the issue of corruption and judicial reforms has to be seen also in connection with the wider debates we are having in Europe regarding the rule of law. The European Parliament has been a strong proponent of creating a comprehensive mechanism that would apply equally to all Member States and we are very much aware of the dangers of lifting the CVM prematurely. In several texts adopted by the Parliament we have indeed warned that the CVM should continue to apply for as long as a fully functioning mechanism to monitor respect for democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, applicable equally to all Member States, is not yet in place.

VoteWatch Europe: The European Public Prosecutor’s Office has been established to investigate and prosecute crimes against the EU budget such as fraud, corruption and cross-border VAT fraud. What are the precautionary measures that could be implemented if the precedence of EPPO cases over national ones is objected to by Member States in the future?

Ramona Strugariu: The EPPO has started its activity earlier this year and it is already showing results. The Office is the one missing piece in the EU anti-fraud framework and ever since its establishment and operationalisation, it has demonstrated its added value to the protection of the EU budget.

When the participating Member States agreed upon the establishment and functioning of the EPPO, they willingly agreed that in the cases where the Office could exercise its competence, as set in Articles 22, 25 (2) and (3), the EPPO will have precedence over the national prosecution services.

Under Article 24 (2) of the EPPO Regulation, it is established that when initiating an investigation into an offence for which the EPPO could exercise its competence, any national authority has the obligation to inform the Office without undue delay, so that the EPPO can then decide whether to exercise its right of evocation. In these situations, where the EPPO is competent, no other authority can continue investigations that could overlap with the actions of the EPPO, unless of course they are complementary measures agreed upon with the Office – this is the case of OLAF for example in administrative investigations. Therefore, for the Member States that participate in the EPPO, the Regulation already establishes a legal obligation and should this obligation not be fulfilled, there are legal consequences, just as in other cases where European law is disregarded.

Up until now, the EPPO has received over 2300 criminal reports from all over Europe and has launched around 380 investigations in various Member States. Sometimes however, there are cases where national authorities are less cooperative. This is for instance the case of Malta, which only sent two criminal reports to the EPPO in the past five months, neither of which were in the Office’s jurisdiction.

The Chief European Prosecutor has subsequently visited Malta and has had a series of meetings with the relevant Maltese authorities in order to improve the dialogue between the national bodies and the EPPO and take over those cases, which fall under the competence of the Office. Ever since the operationalisation of the EPPO, the Office is the only one that investigates any cases that fall under its competence. Any such investigation conducted by any other authority can therefore be legally challenged and thus create serious consequences.

The precautionary legal measures already exist in the legislation establishing the functioning of the EPPO. Nevertheless, I trust that the chief prosecutor and national authorities will be able to find a solution to this matter without having to make use of legal proceedings.

VoteWatch Europe: The European Union has removed Seychelles from its ‘tax havens blacklist’ despite being named one of the main destinations for offshore companies in the Pandora Papers. According to some MEPs, this demonstrated the inadequacy of the list and the urgency for revising the compilation method. In this regard, how do you evaluate the EU’s current law enforcement mechanisms to fight money laundering?

Ramona Strugariu: It is indeed worrying that despite the increasing tax scandals and recent reports of journalists and NGO’s, the ‘tax havens blacklist’ which was already seen as a blunt instrument, was even more watered down by the Member States’ finance ministers at their meeting on 5 October 2021, by removing the Caribbean islands of Anguilla and Dominica, as well as the Seychelles.

The Pandora Papers also revealed that two thirds of the shell companies referred to in their reports, are located in the British Virgin Islands, which were never featured on the EU blacklist. As mentioned in the recent Resolution of the European Parliament on the Pandora Papers, for which I was shadow rapporteur on behalf of my group, it is clear we are in urgent need for a reform of this list, through a transparent process and based on clear criteria, in order to protect the EU from any further revenue losses.

The EU currently has some of the highest legislative standards of corporate transparency in the world. However, these standards are still insufficient, mainly because of the lack of political will among some Member States to properly transpose and implement AML legislation.

Currently, the Commission has already initiated infringement procedures against 16 Member States on AMLD 4 (for which the transposition deadline was June 2017) and against 4 Member States on AMLD 5 (for which the transposition deadline was January 2020). The Commission needs to continue with this roadmap and further initiate infringement procedures against those Member States which do not comply with current rules.

At the same time, we have a new AML/CFT package proposed by the Commission in July 2021, including measures like a single rulebook on AML/CFT, new rules on beneficial ownership transparency, a regulation creating a European authority for countering money-laundering. I am looking forward to working on these proposals, as recently appointed shadow rapporteur on three of the five files, on behalf of Renew Europe. We will properly address the fragmentation in transposition at national level, we will enhance supervision at EU level, while keeping in place national supervision systems and we will propose better coordination of the FIUs.

I am confident that these pieces of legislation can reduce current loopholes. We finally have an audacious approach to AML through regulations. I’ve been one of the MEPs asking for regulations replacing the directive approach for a long time, but Member States must be a very active supporter of this approach as well. They are also key-players in ensuring the success of this package.

VoteWatch Europe: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) have been added to the European Commission’s legislative agenda for 2021. What are your expectations about the upcoming Anti-SLAPP Directive, especially with regards to media freedom and journalist independence in Romania, as well as within other EU Member States?

Ramona Strugariu: The Commission has long promised action against SLAPPs and it is time they came out with a strong package that comprises legislative measures against these abusive lawsuits. It is crucial that the Commission’s response to SLAPPs comes with actual measures, not just mere recommendations. This should be a core priority for Ursula von der Leyen as well and I am expecting more guarantees in this regard.

SLAPPs have become a wide-spread practice across the EU, have evolved and have grown in numbers over the recent years. These lawsuits abuse the justice systems of the Member States with one sole aim – to put pressure and silence those professionals and individuals who engage in public participation – and the abusers are extremely diverse, from politicians to bishops, from corporations to business people or lawyers. To give you an example from my country, last spring, a former bishop initiated a SLAPP case against three Romanian journalists – Ovidiu Vanghele, Diana Onciou and Vlad Stoicescu – for investigating cases of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Church. At the same time, in Poland, politicians from the governing coalition, including the PiS leader Jarosław Kaczynski have initiated over 55 SLAPPs against one of the country’s leading free media outlets: Gazeta Wyborcza, while in Malta, following Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, her family inherited over 40 SLAPP suits, showing that abuse goes beyond death.

It is clear that while SLAPPs clearly have a pattern when it comes to abuse, they are still very diverse and this should be taken into account when establishing anti-SLAPP measures, if we want them to be effective.

EU anti-SLAPP legislation is extremely important for media freedom, because those who initiate these lawsuits have as their ultimate goal the intimidation and censorship of critical journalists, achieving this by financially and psychologically draining the victims as they recur to forum shopping and make ridiculously large financial claims. The pressure is immense and under this kind of harassment, many give in and even give up journalism as a profession. SLAPPs effectively leave us with fewer journalists, they are a serious threat to the freedom of expression and information and have direct consequences to the quality of our democracies.

My expectations from the future package is first and foremost to include legislative action also in the form of a directive that tackles the problem at its roots and gives the judicial bodies the tools and mechanisms to dismiss such cases at an early stage. Secondly, the Commission must go as far as possible into tackling not only cross-border cases, but also domestic SLAPPs. Here we need a holistic approach that includes national solutions from the Member States, but the impulse has to come from Brussels. The legal bases and measures that we expect, including early dismissal, clear pecuniary sanctions against those who initiate SLAPPs as well as aspects concerning the burden of proof, are all in the recent JURI-LIBE INI report, which was voted for by a large majority in the EP plenary, earlier this month. I expect the Commission to make full use of the competences that the Union has in this field, use the EP report, draw solutions from it and make them reality. There are no justifications for inaction.

If this Directive becomes reality and if it draws onto our report, I believe that journalists and media freedom in all Member States would finally get a minimum level of protection. It is common sense to allow them to do their job properly and actively defend our democracy. National authorities are also responsible to come with complementary measures, especially in the field of civil procedural law, but this Directive would be the sign that Brussels is not dormant about media freedom and that we recognise the vital role journalists play in our society.

The Media Freedom Act is on the working program of the Commission for 2022 and will most likely bring legislative proposals in the field of media regulators. This is very necessary, but a package on the safety of journalists should not be left out. I see this package as including an anti-SLAPP Directive together with the revision of Brussels I and Rome II regulations. Moreover it needs to cover a full series of non-legislative measures to complement this framework. The small independent media projects, investigative media and local media are always at threat, particularly in illiberal regimes. We need to find ways for a permanent Union fund managed by an independent entity that can provide continuity for their projects.

Europe should not have two speeds in terms of protecting media freedom as this is equivalent to a two-speed democracy in the Union. I will never accept this thought and I believe that we need to stay committed until the “guardians of the truth” walk on solid ground on the territory of the Union and not only. We need them to be independent and protected. They need these clear-cut rules and measures in order for them to fulfill their mission.

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