Is corruption really getting worse in Europe or are perceptions all wrong?
On the face of it, the European public has become much better at flushing out corrupt politicians.
Last October, Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign as Austrian Chancellor over the alleged use of public funds to buy favorable media coverage.
Around the same time, Czech voters made sure that Andrej Babis failed to win another term as prime minister, in part because of longstanding allegations that his vast conglomerate had illegally received EU subsidies.
Janez Jansa — who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in 2013 – lost his post as Prime Minister of Slovenia in June.
In 2020, Slovaks elected a new coalition government whose largest party campaigned exclusively on an anti-corruption ticket. Protests have taken place since the 2018 murder of a young investigative journalist who wrote about the links between the country’s tycoons and the once-dominant SMER-SD party.
More than two-thirds think corruption is widespread
But a recent Eurobarometer poll revealed that 68% of people in the EU believe that corruption is still widespread in their country. Only a third thought their governments were doing something about it. In Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, Croatia and Portugal, more than 90% of respondents said it was widespread. Collections were below the 50% mark only in Estonia, Luxembourg, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
Although this figure is slightly lower than a similar survey in 2019 – when 71% of Europeans believe corruption was widespread – the fact remains that most Europeans believe their countries are corrupt.
Analysts say this shouldn’t be overestimated as the variations are within the confidence error of the methodology, but even Europe‘s top performers have deteriorated slightly on Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Norway, which is considered the least corrupt state in the world, scored 88 out of 100 in 2015; he lost three points in the last report. Sweden went from 89 to 85. Germany lost a point over the same period. The UK went from 81 to 78.
Roberto Martinez B Kukutschka of Transparency International cautions against semantics: “Corruption is often used as an umbrella term that covers several acts of abuse of power for private gain. It can range from corruption to obtain a public service, to embezzlement of public funds or favoritism in the award of public contracts,” he said.
“Due to the nature of many of these acts, it is impossible to measure them directly, so we often rely on indirect measures of perceptions or risk.”
Europe’s east-west divide on corruption
Even when there is real data on corruption, it’s often hard to tell whether things are getting better or worse, Kukutschka added.
If 1,000 officials are arrested for corruption, does that mean that corruption is becoming more widespread or that anti-corruption efforts are improving? If a politician is singled out for accepting a bribe, it may go unreported (and unpunished) that they have also accepted bribes in the past.
“People perceive a variety of these behaviors as corrupt and add them up,” said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of democracy studies at the Hertie School in Berlin, where she chairs the European Center for Anti-Corruption Research. corruption and state building.
“General research shows that people consider all elite privileges – like lawyers who optimize your tax returns – to be corrupt. Populists use it very successfully.
Denmark is the only EU country where a majority of people do not think the links between business and politics are too close, according to the Eurobarometer survey.
There are also differences between the west and east of the continent, Kukutschka pointed out.
According to the Eurobarometer survey, residents of countries that were members of the EU before 2004 – so mainly the western half of the continent – are more likely than residents of new EU members to say that corruption is widespread in political parties and in business.
By comparison, people in new states perceive corruption to be more prevalent in their health care system, police, and justice system.
“People in Eastern Europe view corruption as a problem in both the public and private sectors and are particularly wary of those in high political positions,” Kukutschka said.
“In Western Europe, trust in the public sector is much higher and the main concern is the relationship between the public and private sectors and the power and influence of big business in the policy-making process,” said he added.
Are we better at uncovering corruption?
One of the potential reasons why some Europeans may think corruption is getting worse is that journalists and regulators have become much more efficient at uncovering and reporting evidence of corruption, said Liz David-Barrett, head of the global program measuring corruption at the International AntiCorruption Academy in Vienna.
The past two years have seen a series of leaks, from the Pandora Papers to more recent files regarding the lobbying activity of Uber, the car rental company.
It’s also a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, David-Barrett said.
“In normal times, most cases of corruption remain quite secret and people don’t always appreciate its impact on their lives,” she noted. “But during the COVID pandemic, corruption around the procurement of essential medical supplies has become very visible – and very high stakes. People have realized it could be the difference between life and death.
A recent survey by Transparency International attributed the poor perceptions in part to scandals involving government procurement of medical equipment during the pandemic.
However, for the most part, there seems to be progress in Europe. There is some confidence in the EU’s new European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), created last year and headed by Romania’s former chief anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Kovesi.
It can prosecute anyone involved in misuse of €100,000 or more of EU funds. Previously, the European Fraud Investigation Office, OLAF, was crippled by the fact that it was unable to pursue corruption cases, only to pass them on to member states.
In part, Brussels is moving quickly to fight corruption as it aims to dole out 800 billion euros in its COVID-19 recovery fund by 2027, creating wide avenues for corruption.
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office, some say, was created so that net contributors to the EU’s coffers could be a bit more assured that the bloc’s net beneficiaries are using their money correctly.
Euronews’ analysis of CorruptionRisk.org, an analytical forecaster, finds that most European countries are not getting too – or too – badly on corruption.
According to its Corruption Forecast, which measures scores between 2008 and 2020, only Bosnia and Herzegovina was deemed to have a “downward” trend in corruption risk.
Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Spain and Slovakia were all rated as improving.
The trend for the rest of Europe was described as stationary.