Does the EU oil corrupt member states?

120 billion Euros. That’s what corruption costs EU member states every year. While the European Commission unveiled its first anti-corruption report only last February,  global civil society organisation Transparancy International has been unmasking the corrupt for the past twenty years. Its Corruption Perception Index (CPI) measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption worldwide. Is the EU lagging behind?

“Positive change only comes slowly when the enemy is endemic corruption.” Peter Eigen, founder of Transparancy International, said at the beginning of the new millennium. He emphasized that “perceptions of corruption don’t change greatly from one year to the next. Positive results are only going to emerge from tireless and consistent multy-year effort.” Now, fourteen years later, Europe finally seems to have gotten that message.

Ten months ago the then commissioner of Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström proudly presented the first EU Anti-Corruption report. The report showed that there is no “corruption-free” zone in Europe. “This is all the more worrying in times of economic and financial crisis. In order to pull Europe from the brink of the crisis, we need to attack corruption effectively by pulling efforts from all sides. The Report will hopefully provide everyone – politicians, the public, media and practitioners – with a useful tool for taking national corruption policy forward.”, Malmström said during the presentation of the report.

Too little too late

Whether or not the Commission will succeed in its aim to create an European anti-corruption policy is debatable. One thing is clear: it seems Europe is doing too little too late. In fact, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey three quarters of Europeans think that corruption is widespread and more than half think that the level of corruption in their country has increased over the past three years. It seems that the words spoken by Peter Eigen at the start of the new millennium are still relevant. Perceptions are stubborn, the walk to a corruption-free Europe seems endless.

Still, one can wonder to what the yearly agendasetting of Transparancy International has led. On the one hand it’s clear that the same countries hang at the very bottom of the CPI year after year. On the other hand the EU, one of the world powers , has only started thinking of tackling the ‘enemy of endemic corruption’ seriously a year before the CPI will celebrate its twentieth birthday. This while Malmström agrees that “corruption undermines citizens’ confidence in democratic institutions and the rule of law, it hurts the European economy and deprives States from much-needed tax revenue.”

Case study Greece

One of the member states that is in desperate need of such a tax revenue is Greece. Together with Romania, Italy and Bulgaria it belongs to the most corrupt among EU member states. This year Greece holds 69th place in 175 countries on Transparancy international’s corruption perceptions index. The perceived level of public sector corruption in Greece has been measured since the beginning of the CPI in 1995. All this time the southern member state scores terribly bad. Looking at the EU’s passive reaction towards corruption, some experts argue that this is understandable.

According to Dimitris Keridis, professor international politics at the Panteion University in Greece, the EU has not helped Greece in its battle against corruption. “EU has not helped in the past as EU subsidies were used to oil a corrupt system.” he told InEurope. Economist Costas Azariadis from Carnegie-Mellon University says that the EU can tackle the corruption by raising the salaries for top civil servants. This should be combined with draconian penalties at the top for misuse of the public funds, Mr. Azariadis says.


But eleminating corruption doesn’t only depend from the goodwill and the initiative of the EU because “corruption is part of everyday life in Greece.” Azariadis told InEurope. International politics professor Keridis agrees:

“Corruption in Greece is widespread and doesn’t involve large-scale corruption only but small-scale as well. It is not a moral issue but a political and a systemic problem that has to do with the fact that the Greek state is too large and too weak at the same time. The more involved in the economy it is the more opportunities there are for well-placed bureaucrats to extract small or large bribes” he says.

That’s why an European answer to corruption is highly needed. “The age of austerity has not increased corruption but has made its presence more unbearable for the average Greek” Kerisis told InEurope. The results of the latest CPI confirm this.

The first EU anti-corruption report is certainly not before time but it deserves credit. Together with the CPI as barometer the EU can develop concrete plans to tackle the corruption crisis that haunts Greece but also other EU member states. With plenty of challenges on the table, however, we need to wait to see what the new Commission will do with the anti-corruption report.

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