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Central Europe & the EU: Part III. Open democracy or hidden corruption?

Professor Christie Davies writes: One of the claims made for the benign and beneficial impact of the EU on the Central European countries in the pre-accession period is that it enabled them to reduce levels of corruption in their own countries, partly through exhortation and pressure, and partly through providing advice on administrative reform and indeed relevant training. This may well be true,1 though the main credit must, of course go to the local peoples who desired and nurtured reform. We can see a similar attempt being made today in relation to the next entrants Bulgaria and Romania who have been told they must meet crucial benchmarks on crime and corruption and that there will be continued post-accession monitoring to ensure that progress is made.

Can we therefore, assume that the EU itself and the older Member States are models of probity and exemplars of honesty that the Central and Eastern European nations and elites should seek to emulate? Are they in this respect a burning and a shining light to all these places after the gloom of the socialist era? Unfortunately not, as has recently been pointed out by the Bulgarian Minister of the Interior, Roumen Petkov; he has accused the EU of unfairness and double standards in insisting on the Bulgarians eliminating corruption in their country, while they allow it to flourish in ’old Mediterranean Europe, particularly in Greece and Southern Italy. It is notable in this context that there is no law in Spain against bribery in the private sector (or at least there was none in October 2006). Bribery in relation to corporations seems to have been an accepted practice in Spanish law. Civil laws relating to competition could in theory be used to annul contracts won via bribery, but in practice no case had ever been brought to court.

Members of the European Council signed the Criminal Law Convention on Bribery in 1999 but even by 2006 it had still not been ratified in France, Greece and Germany nor of course in Spain though Bulgaria and Romania have been forced to ratify. In June 2007 the European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security Franco Frattini was still complaining that most EU members (all except two) had failed to implement a framework decision to combat corruption in the private sector, which in theory had to be done by 2005. It has not been done because corruption is not an EU priority and many of the other commissioners did and do not take it seriously at all. Corruption it would seem is something to be combated only in the new Member States; it is worth noting that no such probes about corruption were made and no conditions were attached when the Mediterranean countries, Spain, Portugal and Greece first joined the EU. The Bulgarians have a point when they complain that the EU has been selectively assiduous in its pursuit of corruption, though it is somewhat ironic that they should perceive having to clean up their own country as an unrewarding and oppressive requirement.

Very broadly the old countries of the EU can be divided into two groups when it comes to corruption. There are the honest majority and the corrupt Mediterranean countries, Greece, Spain, Italy and especially southern Italy and to an extent France that are thoroughly, perhaps incorrigibly, corrupt. In Greece it is part of everyday life. You do not need to sit the driving test, since you can easily buy a driving licence by giving a fakelo (bribe) to a corrupt official without having to demonstrate any competence behind the wheel whatsoever. It is hardly surprising that the incidence of a death through motor accidents per million people in Greece is three times as high as in the Netherlands. It makes complete nonsense of the attempt to harmonize first the nature of the driving test and now the training of the examiners of the driving test. A far better method would have been to have mutual recognition of a diversity of tests between countries where it is known that the local test works reasonably well as an instrument for the furtherance of road safety. To go beyond this is in two senses irrational and indeed these two forms of irrationality underlie the very concept and practice of harmonization and should lead us to reject it. First, if the same end, namely road safety is attained reasonably equally by different means, then why incur the extra costs of local reorganization in countries that are willing to have mutual recognition. Second, the attainment of equivalent formal legal-rational procedures does not guarantee real equivalence, since it does not allow for local cultural differences which are more important and which shape considerably the kind of procedures that are appropriate in a particular country. Harmonization is neither a necessary nor a sufficient means of attaining the desired mutual European goal of road safety. Indeed its attainment distracts our attention from other more important questions such as whether or not he driving test is fairly or corruptly administered or the ‘culture’ of driving attitudes. What is important is whether drivers habitually drive aggressively or with mutual consideration is what is important, not what is measured by a driving test. How can you harmonize cultural attitudes or indeed median national personalities?

Here is one basic reason why EC harmonization cannot work. The incidence of corruption and perceptions of corruption differ too much between countries. Regulations will never be enforced in the same way in honest Europe and in corrupt Mediterranean Europe, so what meaning can harmonization have? It is particularly a problem in relation to EU expenditures in the more corrupt countries. The accuracy of income support payments to farmers now has to be monitored by means of aerial photography. In the past money has disappeared to subsidise tobacco farms that did not even exist. Given the health hazards associated with tobacco it may well be that less harm was done than by paying the money to actual tobacco growers who despite decades of EU subsidies seem unable to adapt to growing other crops.

No doubt if I were to put these points to the EU Commissioners they would claim that all the blame lies with the Member States who are lax in investigating the corrupt use of EC funds and would argue that what is needed is even greater centralized powers, so that they can conduct their own anti-corruption investigations in individual countries at their own discretion.

I can only reply to these imperial sons of the Romans: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is to guard those who guard the EC’s finances? Every year perhaps 10 per cent of the budget goes missing, 5 billion euros per annum, five percent as fraud and five percent misappropriated. The auditors cannot say with any real degree of assurance where 90 per cent of the money went, which is why they inevitably refuse to sign off the accounts. Random checks reveal significant levels of fraud to which the EU tries to riposte that you cannot generalise from a small sample! The auditors refuse to pass the accounts year after year and accountants seconded by national governments to the auditors say that the accounts are badly kept; yet without a decent accounting system that tells you where the money is going, how is it possible to run any kind of effective administrative body?

It is not just that funds disappear at the southern peripheries of Europe. It is also that the southerners come to Brussels and bring their culture of corruption with them. It is no accident that the most recent charges of bribery and corruption over the construction of EC buildings in Albania, India have involved Italian nationals. There is corruption at the centre and there are even reports of systematic abuse and nepotism and of wrongdoing being ignored within the Court of Auditors itself.

What is profoundly shocking is the way in which irregularities are covered up, When honorable whistleblowers such as Paul van Buitenen or Marta Andreason, Dorte Schmidt-Brown or Robert McCoy provide revelations of corruption, then the Commission takes stern action not against the fraudsters but against the whistle-blowers, who are sacked, suspended without pay or on half pay or given compulsory sick leave and eventually tire and quit. They are even smeared; when Sir Paul van Buitenen the EU’s Dutch auditor wrote to a member of the European Parliament saying that his Christian principles required him to reveal the high levels of corruption that existed he was reviled as a religious fanatic. Despite all the concealment, scandals do get revealed, notably that of 1999, when Jacques Santer’s entire Commission resigned. Between a billion and two billion’s worth of taxpayers money had disappeared somewhere in the Mediterranean, the countries not the sea. Mme Cresson a Commissioner and former Prime Minister to the notoriously corrupt French President Mitterand, was found to have employed her dentist, who also lived in her house and was her astrologer, as a special adviser to the EC and to carry out a well-funded research project on AIDS. No doubt she had excellent teeth and a good horoscope, but was that a recommendation? All those who resigned or were dismissed for fraud at this time got substantial pay-offs. Cresson got 500,000 Euros. The penalties for being a whistle-blower are clearly far greater than for being found out in fraud, nepotism or mismanagement. What is most alarming is the inability and unwillingness of personally honest Commissioners to police such behaviour or to expose it. On the contrary they rush to scapegoat the persons who exposed the corruption and even to induce the Belgian police to arrest them; the said police held for questioning and seized the files of the journalist Hans-Martin Tillack of Der Stern investigating EU corruption, claiming that he possessed leaked documents from the Court of Auditors.

The pattern is a depressing one and must be familiar to those who experienced the socialist period in Eastern Europe. Loyalty to an institution, whether the Commission or the Party, the upholding of secrecy and avoiding scrutiny and scandal are more important to the insiders than any commitment to such democratic values as accountability, openness, transparency, honesty. The motives are the same, a mixture of ideology and a wish to retain great privilege. The ideology is Europeism and the privileges lie in the very high levels of lightly taxed pay and the very generous allowances, expenses, and pensions that EU officials enjoy, as indeed do MEPs. For the officials there is total job security and membership of a closed elite provided you do not question the questionable or deviate from the party line.


The failure to tackle corruption is hardly surprising since the Commissioners are accountable to no one. There is no proper separation of powers and no definable limits to the Commissioners powers. Legislation that has been vetoed by a Member State can be brought in anyway by a decision of the European Court of Justice. The people are ensnared by EU regulations but the regulators are unregulated. At the top there are no certain rules, only creative accountancy and creative bending of the laws.

When the European Parliament was outraged at the corruption in the time of Jacques Santer, it was working on the basis of information leaked to its members by Buitenen, not as a result of its own scrutiny or that of a judiciary. It did not have the courage to vote for the censure and dismissal of the Santer Commissioners. Yet if a Parliament will not act in this way as the representative of its voters and taxpayers, how much democracy is there in Europe? Each time there is a scandal, there is a cosmetic change in the ineffective bodies for investigating fraud, which are then given new acronyms, and there is the rhetoric of reform. Some time later it happens all over again as with the Eurostat scandal. There are no checks and balances on the Commission, it has a culture of secrecy and attempts to scare off investigative journalists. Is this the democracy that the Central Europeans aspired to when they escaped from socialism?

Rather what we see is contempt for democracy. It is the other side of the unwillingness to accept the results of popular referenda, where the people of a country reject an EU treaty or most recently a Constitution on a high poll and after a strong debate, indeed one loaded towards acceptance because the EU and its supporters provide money and propaganda on a scale no opposition can match. Yet when the Danes and the Irish voted ‘No’ to ever closer union, they were told to hold the referendum all over again until they came up with an answer acceptable to the European leadership. When the proposed constitution was recently rejected in France and the Netherlands, it was not concluded that the people had spoken and that their will must prevail but rather that they were ‘wrong’ to do so or that their votes, despite the referendum question being entirely clear, did not mean what they said. The ‘treaties’ up for negotiation in 2007 are simply a dishonest way of smuggling in quietly the very constitution that was rejected, thus once again showing contempt for the voters.

What this indicates is a very wide gap between a European political class that exercises power and the national electorates. When the politicians from a particular country go to Europe to negotiate they forget the wishes of their own electorate, except for certain small powerful or vociferous sectional interests, and they seek to appease other European politicians and the EU apparatchiks with whom they have to deal regularly on a face-to-face basis. They are hopeful that at election time their fate will be decided by other local issues and they are reluctant to be the awkward ones who stall a European agreement. Thus a gap has opened up between a ‘them’, heads of governments and the European establishment working together and a ‘we’ the public, the voters, the taxpayers who are rarely consulted and indeed when they are, their clearly expressed views are disregarded. It is at this point that democracy ceases. The politicians and the people have to come to live in two different worlds, the very antithesis of democracy.


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Bill Cash has been the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stone since 1997 and an MP since 1984.

He is currently the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee and the founder member of the European Foundation...

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