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New ‘European Public Prosecutor’s Office’ tackles Covid-19 fraud

Most of the globe has put itself into debt, taking out huge loans to pay for the costs of fighting Covid-19 and protecting employment infrastructures. With the flood of cash, fraud is running rampant. The EU is preparing to battle this fraud and corruption by setting up a new European Public Prosecutor’s Office. This new body will be charged with fighting the proliferation of corruption, money laundering, and value added tax (VAT) crimes to which Covid-19 has given rise.

Any effort to combat these crimes must be welcomed, especially where the actions of fraud-promoting charlatans have jeopardized people’s lives. The size of the problem the EU faces is significant. It is estimated that the losses are in the region of $562 million across the continent. These sorts of losses cannot go unchallenged.

Going forward, the body will also oversee the use and distribution of the EU recovery fund, Next Generation EU. This fund is intended to help member states to rebuild post-pandemic. The new body will open its doors with 3,000 cases already awaiting it, with projected estimates of 2,000 cases per year. The agency will be known as the EPPO and will also prosecute another long-standing thorn in the EU side: VAT fraud.

In this instance, the VAT fraud (unless directly linked to the pandemic) should take a back seat. The corruption and criminality linked to Covid-19 is much more serious, even if the sums may be dwarfed in some instances by the frauds related to VAT.

The crimes linked to the virus are so much more sinister. They have had (and will continue to have) detrimental effects on EU citizens and their health moving forward, as state and medical budgets try to absorb the losses made in securing vaccines and PPE. In effect, the fraudsters have committed acts that have directly led to the incapacitation and deaths of innocent casualties. Fraud, in this instance, is definitively not a victimless crime.  

As such, the EPPO should focus its attention on bringing these thieves to justice. VAT tax-dodgers are a blight on society and inflict significant damage on state budgets. Sven Giegold, a German member of the European Parliament and representative of their Green party, said, “Today is a big day for tax justice,” at the press briefing for EPPO’s launch. But he totally missed the point. 

This is not a political issue. Trying to force home your political perspective concerning tax injustice is unbecoming of the problem at hand. This is not a tax issue: it is instead a well-intentioned countermeasure to the corruption and fraud arising from the pandemic. 

I am not condoning tax fraud. I am merely stating that if EPPO is to take a targeted approach, then much of its resources should be focused on those who have indirectly inflicted physical damage on those unable to defend themselves. The victims’ families deserve this much, especially those of the frontline workers who caught Covid-19 due to a lack of PPE or caused by counterfeit PPE acquired in haste without the usual tendering and due diligence procedures.

Suppose EPPO is also going to oversee the distribution of the EU recovery fund. In that case, it must do so in the knowledge that when culprits who would seek to manipulate the system are caught and brought before the courts, they should be treated in keeping with the harm they have inflicted. The fraud in this instance becomes secondary. The deterrent becomes everything.  

There are those whetting their lips at the thought of billions of Euros being set aside for rebuilding the Union. Unless they are put in fear of crossing the line, they will balance the risk against the gain, and invariably dishonesty will win out.

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With thanks to Tony McClements, Senior Investigator at Martin Kenney & Co, for his assistance with this post. He served for 33 years with UK police forces and has specialized in Fraud & Financial Investigation since 1998. He is also a lecturer in these subjects at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

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