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Is corruption really getting worse in Europe or are perceptions all wrong?

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 turfing out corruption-tainted politicians.

Last October, Sebastian Kurz was compelled to resign as Austrian chancellor over the alleged use ofgovernment funds to buy favourable media coverage. 

Around the same time, Czech voters made sure Andrej Babis failed to win another term as prime minister, in part because of long-standing allegationsthat his vast conglomerate had illegally taken EU subsidies.

Janez Jansa — who was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in 2013 — lost his prime ministership of Slovenia in June. 

In 2020, Slovaks elected a new coalition government whose largest party campaignedexclusively on an anti-graft ticket. Protests took place since the murder in 2018 of a young investigative journalist who wrote about connections 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 found that 68% of people within the EU reckon corruption isstill widespread in their country. Only a third thought their governments were doing anything about it. In Greece, Cyprus, Hungary, Croatia and Portugal, more than 90% of respondents said it was widespread. Perceptions were only below the 50% mark in Estonia, Luxembourg, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

While this was marginally down from a similar study in 2019 — when 71% of Europeans reckon corruption was widespread — it remains the case that most Europeans reckon their countries are corrupt.

Analysts say it shouldn’t be overstated, as the variations are within the confidence error of methodology, but even Europe’s best performers have worsened slightly on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

Norway, which is deemed the world’s least corrupt state, scored 88 out of 100 in 2015; it dropped three points in the latest report. Sweden went from 89 to 85. Germany dropped one point over the same period. The UK went from 81 to 78.

Roberto Martinez B Kukutschka, of Transparency International, warns about the semantics: “Corruption is often used as an umbrella term that covers several acts of abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This can range from bribery to obtain a public service, to embezzlement of public funds or favouritism 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 measurements of perceptions or risks.”

Europe’s east-west divide on corruption

Even when there’s actual data on corruption, it’s often difficult to ascertain if things are improving or worsening, Kukutschka added.

If 1,000 public officials are arrested for graft, does it mean corruption is becoming more pervasive or are graft-busting efforts improving? If a politician is fingered for taking a bribe, it might go unreported (and unpunished) that they had also accepted bribes in the past.

“People perceive a variety of such behaviours 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 Research Centre for Anticorruption and State-Building.

“General research shows that people consider that any privileges the elite has — like lawyers optimising your tax returns — are corrupt. Populists use this very successfully.”

Denmark is the only country in the EU where a majority of people don’t think that 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, people in the countries that were EU members before 2004 — so mainly the western half of the continent — are more likely than residents of the EU’s newer members to say corruption is widespread in political parties and in business. 

By comparison, those in the newer states perceive corruption to be more pervasive in their healthcare system, the police and the judiciary.

“People in Eastern Europe see corruption as a problem in both the public and the private sectors and are particularly suspicious of those in high-level political offices,” Kukutschka said.

“In Western Europe trust in the public sector is much higher and the main concern is the relationship between the public and the private sectors and the power and influence of big companies in the policymaking process,” he added.

Are we getting better at uncovering corruption?

One potential reason why some Europeans may think corruption is worsening is because journalists and regulators have got much better at uncovering and reporting evidence of corruption, said Liz David-Barrett, head of the Global Programme on Measuring Corruption at the International AntiCorruption Academy in Vienna.

The last two years have seen a swathe of leaks, from the Pandora Papers to the more-recent files regarding the lobbying activity of Uber, the car-hailing firm.

It’s also a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, said David-Barrett. 

“In normal times, most corruption remains quite secret and people do not always appreciate its impact on their lives,” she noted. “But during the COVID pandemic, corruption around the procurement of essential medical supplies became very visible – and very high stakes. People realised that it can make the difference between life and death.”

A recent survey by Transparency International blamed poor perceptions partly on scandals involving public 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 abuses of €100,000 or more of EU funds. Previously, the EU’s office for investigating fraud, OLAF, was hamstrung by the fact it was not able to prosecute corruption cases, only pass them to member states. 

In part, Brussels is moving fast to tackle graft because it aims to distribute €800bn in its COVID-19 recovery fund by 2027, creating vast avenues for corruption. 

The EPPO, some reckon, was created so that net contributors to the EU’s coffers can be a little more assured that the bloc’s net recipients are using their money properly.

Euronews analysis of CorruptionRisk.org, an analytics forecaster, finds that most European countries are neither getting too much worse — nor too much better — when it comes to graft. 

According to its Corruption Forecast, which measures scores between 2008 and 2020, only Bosnia and Herzegovina was judged to have a “declining” trend for corruption risk. 

Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Spain and Slovakia were all ranked as improving. 

The trend for the rest of Europe was described as stationary.

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