How the EU reneged on its anti-corruption promises
By Carl Dolan
While hundreds of thousands protested the weakening of anti-corruption laws in Romania last week, the European Commission was reneging on its commitments and quietly axing an innovative report that put the spotlight on corruption across the EU.
Like all EU innovations, it started with a crisis.
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Back in 2011, the EU was being battered by the headwinds of an economic crisis that threatened the survival of the euro and the bloc itself.
Corruption was seen, rightly, as one of the sources of all this turbulence and no-one was spared blame: Greek politicians, German and UK bankers, Irish property developers, Spanish bureaucrats - the bailouts and subsequent enquiries revealed graft and failures of governance on a continental scale.
It was in this climate that the European Commission committed to publish a report that would monitor how all 28 member states were faring in the fight against corruption.
It looked like a modest step, but it was a major departure from the Commission's normal reluctance to call out member states on a topic so politically sensitive.
True, this naming and shaming approach had been applied to the bloc's most recent additions, Romania and Bulgaria, since 2007, but now the idea was to apply the same standards to founding members and newcomers alike.
When the report finally saw the light of day three years later, it was a mixed bag.
Coming in at over 300 pages, it was an unwieldy tome and written in an obfuscating bureaucratese. But for those who persevered the picture was pretty damning.
No-one could be left in any doubt that this was a serious EU-wide issue. It showed, as the then home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem put it, that “there is no ‘corruption-free’ zone in Europe".
Axing the report
Fast-forward three years. The current Commission has unceremoniously axed the report, a decision communicated to the European Parliament at the end of January by president Juncker's deputy, Frans Timmermans.
Instead of a regular report, he writes, the Commission will tackle member state governments through its annual dialogue on economic reform, the "European Semester".
The European Semester only addressed corruption in eight member states last year. The rest got a free pass.
This is disturbing for a host of reasons.
It means the European Commission, unlike almost every member state, has no plan, strategy or other instrument to guide its anti-corruption work.
The report was supposed to inform its work, but now it is flying blind. Worse, it is giving the impression that corruption is only a serious issue in a handful of mostly new-ish member states.
This ignores the systemic problems in older members like Spain and the corruption of companies from supposedly “clean countries” like Finland or Germany that have often exploited the lower standards of member states under the Commission microscope.
What has changed in this short interval?
Not the level of corruption in the EU which, if anything, has increased since 2014, with evidence of serious backsliding by Croatia and Hungary according to Transparency International’s research.
The real change has been the political leadership under Juncker, which has styled itself as a “political commission”.
One would be forgiven for thinking this means bold and fearless leadership, leading by example, and speaking truth to the power in member state’s capitals.
As far as corruption goes, however, it means ducking confrontation with powerful countries in election years.
Netherlands, France and Germany all go to the polls in the coming months, and the last thing the incumbents want is the European Commission giving more ammunition to the populists and their narrative on “corrupt elites”.
It also avoids awkward questions about the EU institutions’ own anti-corruption track-record.
This is understandable, almost forgivable. In these dark times, no-one wants to give succour to Le Pen and her ilk in their crude attempts to paint the whole system as a corrupt house of cards.
But the political expediency of this act will come back to haunt the EU in particular.
As countless surveys show, the EU remain a more trusted set of institutions that national institutions across swathes of Eastern Europe, in part because it is seen as a bulwark against the self-interest and venality of their governments.
At a time when the EU is struggling to win over hearts and minds in its traditional heartlands, a strong voice and visible presence in fighting corruption is the best bet to ensure its continued relevance and legitimacy.
Carl Dolan is director of the Transparency International's liaison office to the European Union