Pronouncing his last name might have been quite a challenge for everyone not fluent in German (and even for some of those who are), but that has not prevented Michael Rothärmel from becoming a popular and much-valued colleague and expert. From 2011 to 2015, he worked as a Seconded National Expert to the National Member for Germany. After a stint at the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection in Berlin, he returned to Eurojust in 2018 as Representative at the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) and in the Joint Cybercrime Action Taskforce (J-CAT). Now, after a total of six and a half years at Eurojust, Michael is heading back to his home country. Time to look back with him on his experience.
Michael, do you still remember your first impression of Eurojust when you arrived in 2011?
I remember my first arrival very well: I had been told that from the train station in Voorburg I would easily find my way because I would immediately see the (old) Eurojust building with the bridge between the two towers. However, on the day there was the thickest fog (even for Dutch standards), and one could not see further than an arm’s length. I was staggering around Voorburg for quite a while before I found the building. Maybe this was somehow symbolic, because after starting at the German Desk it took me some time to find my way around in the organisation, which is so different from the Bavarian district court I had come from. After the first contacts with my new colleagues I was quite overwhelmed by the general readiness to help each other any time and in the most efficient and informal ways. I found this readiness everywhere in the organisation, and it is something really special about Eurojust. Everybody at the National Desks clearly understands that all the Desks need one another and that when another Desk is asking you for help today, tomorrow it may be the other way round. I found the same spirit in the administration, and the Case Analysis Team – as it was called back then – was only waiting for opportunities to assist. In this environment, it transpired to me step by step that my new work was not only about solving case after case. Actually, it is much more fun to also start things on your own initiative, with all those very motivated and able people standing ready in both administration and at the other National Desks to help building large cross-border investigations and to develop strategic projects.
During your first secondment to Eurojust, you worked on several big cases for the German Desk, for example on Operation Vertigo, a large-scale investigation of a VAT carousel fraud. What were your key takeaways from this period?
It is often said that organised crime does not care about national borders and that for this reason we will always be lagging behind. For me, Operation Vertigo has proven that this does not have to be true. I understood this during the first coordination centre, which we had set up for one of the action days in this case. It was also the first coordination centre with all national authorities sitting in one room at Eurojust, without any additional command posts neither on national level nor anywhere else. When the German prosecutor just handed his orders for various urgent follow-up measures across the table to his counterparts from the other countries and these were executed without the slightest delay in those countries, it really felt as if the national borders were gone – not only for the criminals but also for us. For me, there is definitely one key takeaway: when we make the most of the available instruments for cross-border cooperation and when there is a good personal understanding between the prosecutors involved on the different sides, we can do better in cross-border cooperation than the criminals.
You then went to work in the German Federal Ministry of Justice for three years, where you were part of the unit for international cooperation. As a ministry official, how did you benefit from your previous Eurojust experience?
At Eurojust, I had not only learned a lot about international cooperation and about how things are done in other Member States. I had also gotten a quite unique overview of my own country, where it can be sometimes quite challenging to sort out competences which are often spread over more than one of the 16 German Länder, each with their own system of internal competences. The German Desk at Eurojust is the best possible place to study this complex landscape and to build a network of contacts.
This helped me a lot at the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection, where I had to gather comprehensive input for policy makers about various aspects of the ‘practice’ of investigations and prosecutions in Germany. Luckily, my time in Berlin coincided with the start of the EU-level discussions that lead to the Commission’s e-evidence proposals. This is one of the most fascinating topics, where we might one day make the first step to genuine and direct cross-border investigations. In order to design the German input to these discussions in line with the needs of practitioners, it was extremely useful to know so many colleagues from all over the country.
What also proved to be very useful during various EU-level negotiations that I attended for the Ministry was another fundamental lesson I had learned at Eurojust: from working as a prosecutor and judge, I had been used to simply putting forward my arguments as forcefully as possible. Wherever this would not immediately lead to success, the result could be appealed. However, at my first coordination meetings at Eurojust I had learned that in an international setting the most convincing arguments are often completely useless when the other side approaches a case from an entirely different angle in terms of legal background, resources, time constraint, internal procedures, etc. For instance, you can prove by presenting the nicest arguments that setting up a JIT is the right way forward in a certain case. It will be a waste of time if, for whatever internal reason, the other side is not willing or able to move into this direction. What counts in these situations is to put yourself into the shoes of your counterparts as much as possible and as early as possible, and then to manage expectations on all sides to achieve the best possible compromise.
Your second Eurojust secondment came with very different tasks: you were no longer part of a National Desk, but represented the Agency at EC3 and in J-CAT. How did you experience this change of perspective?
This time, it was indeed a completely different job, or – to be exact – a whole bunch of jobs, including the liaison function between Eurojust and EC3, the coordination of the European Judicial Cybercrime Network (EJCN), the operational support to cybercrime cases at Eurojust and the work on strategic Eurojust products in the field of cybercrime. I had never done any of these jobs before. So these were very intense two years for me, during which I learned more than I had ever before in my career. All of the tasks depended a hundred per cent on proactivity. If I had just waited until somebody wanted something from me, not much would have happened. This is so different from any job in a national judicial system, where every morning you find a new pile of files in your office and where you go home after you have worked through all of them. Instead, I had to constantly get myself going to knock on colleagues’ doors at Eurojust National Desks, at the EC3 and at the J-CAT, looking out for cooperation opportunities. Often it was a very thin line between providing support and getting on people’s nerves.
Overall, however, all colleagues, also and particularly on the side of EC3 and J-CAT, were bearing with me very nicely and kept their doors open at all times. From the very beginning, the atmosphere at Europol was really welcoming. EC3 has involved me in all kinds of meetings, including even their internal staff meeting, and I could freely move around the whole building to see whomever I needed to talk to. One day, I was even allowed to sit next to an analyst and look over his shoulder to get a first-hand impression of Europol’s core work. I do now have a much better understanding of Europol’s data analysis capacities and the huge potential of the cross-matching of operational data. In addition to my office at Eurojust, I also shared an office at Europol with one of EC3’s crypto experts and with the EC3 colleague who used to draft the IOCTA. Both of them were very nice office mates. This office in the Europol HQ B tower was surrounded by the liaison bureaus of third countries like Georgia, Australia and Canada. This made my working environment even more international than it already was across the street at Eurojust. Since I was fully integrated in both organisations and moved back and forth between the two buildings often more than once per day, Eurojust and Europol did not feel like two separate structures anymore. At times, it got difficult not to mix up my badges or my passwords for the various IT systems on both sides of the street.
Another entirely new thing for me was the world of the networks, and I must say that prior to this secondment I was not aware of the big treasure that Eurojust holds there. As coordinator of the support to the EJCN, I could see on a daily basis what a unique resource this is: with just one email, you can reach out to prosecutors in all Member States to get genuine, unfiltered specialist input on the judicial perspective on cyber investigations. Besides that, I really enjoyed working with this group of great professionals who are so uncomplicated and open to new things.
From your point of view, how has Eurojust changed over the years?
It is not easy for me to answer this question because, as explained, the second time around my angle was an entirely different one. One thing was quite obvious, however: the case load has grown immensely. When asking colleagues from the old days how they were doing, part of the answer would inevitably be ‘busy, very busy’. This did not make my work as Eurojust-EC3 liaison easier, in particular when bringing news about potential cases from the law enforcement level to Eurojust National Desks. Having worked at a National Desk myself, I could understand only too well that drowning in cases where prosecutors are directly asking you for help reduces the time you have left for approaching others to offer help and create even more cases for Eurojust. Ideally, we would be able to do both: handling all the cases which are landing at the National Desks and at the same time proactively contacting the national authorities with suggestions to start and build up certain cases. Personally, I think that the latter is more rewarding for Eurojust, and the larger and more interesting cyber cases which I have seen coming up over the last two years belonged to this second category.
Over the past months, we all had to cope with the COVID-19 situation. What was its impact on your work?
As a liaison to EC3, I depended a lot on my physical presence at Europol HQ and on the many accidental encounters with colleagues there. COVID-19 brought this to a complete standstill after March 2020. What eventually saved me was that the J-CAT carried on with their meetings, involving me via videoconference without any interruption. Luckily, we also succeeded in holding a virtual plenary meeting of the EJCN. So things remained ‘fully operational’ just as for the rest of Eurojust. Still, I personally think that this is not as good as our usual setting. The whole point of Eurojust is the fact that we are sitting together in our building here in The Hague. This is where the magic of Eurojust and its unique dynamics come from.
You are going back to Germany to work for the General Public Prosecutor’s Office in Munich. How do you plan to continue working with Eurojust in your new position?
I do not know yet many details about my new tasks. However, after having been at Eurojust for so many years and after having experienced the Agency from every possible angle, it certainly has become something like my professional home. Therefore, you can be sure that I will not let pass any opportunity to work with Eurojust.
Time for the final questions, Michael: what will you miss most about Eurojust and The Hague? And is there something you will definitely not miss, apart from the erratic Dutch weather?
The first question is easy to answer: that is the very diverse and international team I was part of. Every single working day felt like a small trip across Europe, and I have never stopped discovering new fascinating sides in my colleagues and the various countries they come from.
Not much comes to my mind regarding the second question, and even Dutch weather has been excellent over the last months. However, one thing that I will certainly not miss are the traffic lights on the street between the Eurojust and Europol buildings, which I had to cross so many times. These traffic lights seem to always stand on red, and in total I must have spent days waiting there. As the former bridge-builder, I do hope that we are going to build a real physical bridge between the buildings one day – or at least a tunnel.