Finally, after several months of delays and a few modifications, the European Commission’s EU anti-corruption report is with us. Was it worth the wait?
Well, there’s a hell of a lot of material here – approximately 350 pages on anti-corruption policies, legislation, institutions as well as specific corruption cases. Then there’s there’s the statistics and the results of two surveys (one of citizens, the other of businesses).
Taken in the round, it’s a very sobering read. It’s a stark warning that much more needs to be done by all Member States, both ‘new’ and ‘old’ (that includes you too Sweden, Denmark and Finland!). It confirms our findings from two years ago that across the EU there are systematic corruption risks and governance failings in such areas as party financing and whistleblower protection.
Although petty corruption is not as rampant as in some parts of the world, it remains a big problem in many EU countries. Citizens in Greece, Lithuania and Romania still find themselves having to pay a bribe for access to basic services such as healthcare. That is perhaps the most direct and tangible impact on people’s lives.
Overall, however, this is not the major issue. Only 4% of citizens on average have been asked for a bribe or expect to pay one.
What is much more damaging and common is political corruption. A major theme that emerges from the report is failure on the part of politicians to self-regulate, in particular to regulate the conflicts of interest that are a consequence of their dealings with business. This has given rise to recurrent corruption scandals in political party financing, awarding of public contracts and the ‘revolving door’ between industry and government.
In cases like Spain and Luxembourg, these are not just national problems but have spillover effects to the rest of the EU in terms of banking stability and tax evasion. These chapters in the report should make particularly uneasy reading for these Member States.
The ‘revolving door’ is a particularly insidious corruption risk, since rewards for favouring companies or sectors come in the form of board directorships or other prominent positions rather than cash kickbacks . There are examples in the report of this kind of conflict of interest in Spain (in the healthcare sector), in Portugal (in construction) and in Germany (in transport).
Of course it’s not only a matter of self-regulation.
Corruption and bribery are crimes after all. But another major theme of the report is that anti-corruption and anti-bribery legislation are often poorly enforced, especially when it comes to complex, high-level cases.
There are long delays in bringing cases to court, legal hurdles such as immunity rules for elected officials and statutes of limitations, and a ‘hands-off’ approach from the police when it comes to members of the establishment and political interference in investigations, not to mention corrupt judges. Police and government agencies are often starved of resources – in Finland there is one official in the National Bureau of Investigation responsible for anti-corruption.
If kickbacks are not common in the EU, they may be more common when EU companies go abroad.
The report also has some harsh words about Member States’ efforts to clamp down on foreign bribery, noting that in Belgium, Ireland and Spain there has not been a single prosecution of an individual or company, let alone a conviction. Even the UK, which is credited with introducing a strong anti-bribery law, is asked to do more in corruption-prone sectors such as defence.
So much for what’s in the report. What’s missing?
The cross-border element is not addressed – surprisingly, since this is precisely where the EU is needed. The recent Patria case which brought down the Slovenian government involved companies in Finland and Austria.
The Greek ex-defence minister who was jailed for 20 years for taking bribes was allegedly dealing with German companies and hid the money in real estate markets and bank accounts across the EU using shell companies. Not enough, this saga is still continuing: only last month, Greek prosecutors have again arrested two high-ranking official who have also allegedly accepted bribes from German armament firms. Who should take the lead in such cases? How can we ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks?
Also missing are detailed recommendations to Member States on the protection of whistleblower, access to information and lobbying. These subjects are mentioned but only as ‘background issues’.
This is very misleading. Whistleblowing and a good access to documents regime are vital channels for citizens to expose corruptions, particularly where the political class is compromised.
A very peculiar feature of a report that is designed to generate political pressure is that no member state is mentioned by name in the executive summary that those who want an overview will read (don’t bother by the way – it’s very dull).
Are we pleased with the report?
Well, we’re pleased that it’s out there and is already starting a debate. The Commisson deserves some credit for putting corruption risks in party financing so strongly in the spotlight in an election year. But the real measure of the effectiveness of this report is whether it triggers concrete reforms in the Member States… and also the EU institutions themselves.
We should remember that many of the failings highlighed in this report – e.g. zero monitoring and verification of officials’ asset declarations, ineffective sanctions where ethical standards are breached, inadequate regulation of the revolving door – are also failings of EU institutions. There was originally supposed to be a chapter in this report on the EU itself, but this dropped out over the last six months.
Luckily, we at TI-EU will be conducting our own assessment of the transparency, integrity and accountability of EU institutions. Our report will be published this spring, so you won’t have to wait until the next EU anti-corruption report to see if the European Commission is living up to the high standards it has set for others.