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Analysis

Waning commitment to fight corruption worries EU

/ 10:12 PM February 06, 2014

The extent of corruption in the European Union took the spotlight recently with the publication of the European Commission’s report acknowledging that it is “breathtaking” and costs the region at least 120 billion euros ($162 billion) annually.

The true cost of corruption was “probably much higher” than the figure quoted, according to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem.  BBC News quoted her as saying that three-quarters of the Europeans surveyed for the Commission’s study that covered all 28 member-states viewed corruption as widespread, and more than half claimed that the level had increased. The cost to the EU economy is equivalent to the bloc’s annual budget.

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It is the first time the Commission has done such a survey, Malmstroem said. National governments, rather than EU institutions, are chiefly responsible for fighting corruption in the region.  National governments and the European Parliament had asked the Commission to carry out the survey. The Commission drafts EU laws and enforces compliance with EU treaties.

The survey found Sweden as among the EU members with the least corruption.  Agence France-Presse reported that Malmstroem wrote an op-ed in the Swedish newspaper Goeteborgs-Posten on Monday: “Corruption undermines faith in democratic institutions, drains the legal economy of resources and is a breeding ground for organized crime.” She called on member-states to do more to stamp out the problem, saying “the price of not acting is simply too high.”

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The report neither ranks the countries according to the seriousness of the problem nor suggests legal remedies. Malmstroem said that could follow after talks with member-states. “But one thing is very clear: There is no ‘corruption-free’ zone in Europe,” she said.

While Malmstroem refused to point a finger at any particular country, the European Union has had longstanding concerns about corruption in Bulgaria and Romania, especially over their use of EU funds. Both were put under a special monitoring mechanism when they joined the bloc in 2007.

BBC News highlighted the finding that in the United Kingdom, only five of 1,115—less than one percent—said they had been expected to pay a bribe. It was “the best result in all Europe,” the European Commission’s report said. But 64 percent of the British respondents said they believed corruption to be widespread in the United Kingdom, while the EU average was 74 percent on that question.

In some countries there was a relatively low number reporting a personal experience of bribery. In Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece, between 6 percent and 25 percent of the respondents said they had been asked for a bribe, or had been expected to pay one, in the past 12 months. The levels of bribery were 15 percent in Poland, 14 percent in Slovakia, and 13 percent in Hungary, with the most prevalent instances in healthcare.

While the Commission report emphasized the primary responsibility of national governments in fighting corruption, it acknowledged problems across Western democracies and Marxist satellite states of the former Soviet Union in the course of their transition from authoritarian regimes to capitalist democracies.

The report said “fighting corruption has long been a priority for Bulgaria” but that despite best efforts, the problem “remains widespread.”  The AFP reported that the survey found 84 percent of Bulgarians agreeing that corruption is prevalent. Last year, there were large demonstrations against the government’s ties with wealthy oligarchs who amassed enormous economic power under the new, free-wheeling capitalist system.

Among the possible steps, the Commission “suggests that Bulgaria should shield anticorruption institutions from political influence and appoint their management in a transparent, merit-based procedure,” according to the AFP.

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BBC News quoted Malmstroem as lamenting that “the political commitment to really root out corruption seems missing.” The European Union has an antifraud agency, Olaf, which focuses on fraud and corruption affecting the EU budget, but it has limited resources.

The Commission highlighted that “public procurement (public bodies buying goods and services) forms about one-fifth of the EU’s GDP and is vulnerable to corruption, so better controls and integrity standards are needed; corruption risks are generally greater at local and regional levels; many shortcomings remain in the financing of political parties, and often codes of conduct are not tough enough.”

The quality of corruption investigations varies throughout the bloc.

The report also revealed that four out of 10 businesses described corruption as an obstacle to doing business. Sweden “is undoubtedly one of the countries with the least problems with corruption, and other EU countries should learn from Sweden’s solutions for dealing with the problem,” Malmstroem said, stressing the role of laws in fostering transparency and openness.

There was nothing in the report showing that vindictive antigraft prosecutions are effective in curbing corruption.

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TAGS: amando doronila, Analysis, corruption, EU, European Union, opinion
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