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The EU examines its own rampant corruption

A rise in crime rates can sometimes represent social progress rather than decay if it reflects a growth in awareness and intolerance of the conduct in question.

So it is with corruption. When officials extort bribes and citizens shrug their shoulders and accept this as an inevitable reality, there is insufficient outrage to solve the problem.

“Problem-oriented policing” requires an assessment of the problem and the development of a strategy to reduce or eliminate it altogether. Once this process has begun, it becomes harder to deny the problem. That doesn’t mean that there is always enough political will for real change to occur, but it is a start.

The European Commission’s first report on corruption in the European Union should be seen within this framework. Ever since Transparency International developed the first crude Corruption Perceptions Index in 1995, corruption league tables have challenged countries to improve their relative standing.

When EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom was persuaded that there was a need for the EU to take a stronger line against corruption, she approved a biennial review of how well or badly the EU and its institutions were performing against corruption.

The first review was released early last week. The report was written by Malmstrom’s department and went through the commission’s usual consultation process. Members of the appointed expert group – myself included – provided feedback on individual draft chapters. The contents of those deliberations are confidential, but what follows is a personal judgment about the exercise and what it communicates.

While the cost of corruption will never be known precisely, the report estimates it cost the EU economy the equivalent of $190 billion per year. This does not include social and cultural costs, which may be much larger than the bribes. For example, small bribes for not properly checking road and building construction can have huge environmental consequences.

There are reports on corruption and countermeasures in all individual states in the EU – though (rather unfortunate for the commission’s credibility), not on corruption in EU institutions, as was originally envisaged. But the main report is a little shy about naming and shaming. It does not even mention, for instance, that Germany is the one EU member state that has failed to ratify the U.N. Convention against Corruption. This reflects political sensitivity but is hard to justify if the commission claims to be bold.

The term “corruption” is flexible. To some it means cronyism or that powerful interests can override popular ones because of political funding (or sometimes personal bribes). So it is not surprising that most of the people who think their country is corrupt have never been asked for or offered a bribe. In this sense, seeing your country as corrupt is a vote of no confidence in its meritocracy and fairness.

There are wide variations within the EU in both the experience and perceptions of corruption. Southern Europeans and those from the former Soviet bloc states (for instance Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia) are most likely to say they have witnessed corruption and that their country is corrupt. As for EU businesses, they stated that corruption was the biggest problem in construction and the IT-telecoms field.

The report notes that formal anti-corruption mechanisms do not necessarily reduce corruption and that “in some member states, politicization of recruitment for midmanagement and lower positions in public administration at central or regional/local level have been highlighted as serious problems.”

The report also makes a tough statement against political opposition: “In the Commission’s view, in order to come to a common approach in the EU, there is a need for a clear harmonization of criminal liability of elected officials for corruption offenses.” I would add that criminal law alone does not guarantee action and that we also need civil liability to strip the gains.

In addition, the report criticizes lack of transparency in party funding in some states and pushes for more effective disclosure and preventative efforts using noncriminal mechanisms.

Altogether, the report contains useful anti-corruption measures and practices of interest throughout the world. EU member states vary culturally and economically, and they offer an interesting crucible within which to see the effects of policies and practices.

This first report shows that the European Commission appreciates that corruption is a serious issue affecting its own legitimacy and credibility. Future reports would benefit from greater boldness and efforts to evaluate anticorruption measures rigorously, as has been attempted recently with procurement.

The key message is that we cannot rely on criminal justice or on institutions alone. We need to focus on practices of transparency, prevention and whistle-blowing – but if you whistle and nobody does anything about the problem, no progress will be made.

Michael Levi was part of an appointed expert group that reviewed the report on EU corruption by the EU’s commissioner on home affairs. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2014, on page 7.

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Summary

The European Commission's first report on corruption in the European Union should be seen within this framework.

When EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom was persuaded that there was a need for the EU to take a stronger line against corruption, she approved a biennial review of how well or badly the EU and its institutions were performing against corruption.

While the cost of corruption will never be known precisely, the report estimates it cost the EU economy the equivalent of $190 billion per year.

There are reports on corruption and countermeasures in all individual states in the EU – though (rather unfortunate for the commission's credibility), not on corruption in EU institutions, as was originally envisaged.

As for EU businesses, they stated that corruption was the biggest problem in construction and the IT-telecoms field.

This first report shows that the European Commission appreciates that corruption is a serious issue affecting its own legitimacy and credibility.

Michael Levi was part of an appointed expert group that reviewed the report on EU corruption by the EU's commissioner on home affairs.


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