Tackling Corruption Across the EU

 On 7 December, the TI Liaison Office to the EU (TI EU) hosted a one-day conference on “Tackling Corruption across the EU”. Jana Mittermaier, Head of TI EU, explains how the EU can be an important ally in the fight against corruption.

The EU is often perceived as a source of wonk-ish complexity, hair-splitting and obscure jargon. But you ignore it at your peril. Just ask David Cameron, whose last-minute veto in the face of Franco-German machinations at last weekend’s summit leaves Britain an isolated onlooker as the EU moves toward greater integration.

Transparency International has understood this important lesson. It is one of the reasons that the international secretariat of the global anti-corruption NGO set up the Brussels liaison office as its first overseas office. The potential of EU institutions in the fight against corruption – as regulator, funder and exemplar  – is enormous. Apart from the progress made as a result of the enlargement process, it is potential that is largely untapped however, thanks to a combination of political inertia and the paralysis induced by the current crisis.

These were some of the themes we grappled with at our recent conference in Brussels to mark the UN International Anti-Corruption Day. The presentations and debates have been recorded for posterity (or at least a year!) and can be viewed here. Some 170 participants from EU institutions, civil society and the business sector gathered to discuss the causes and consequences of corruption. Over the next couple of days we will be pointing out some of the highlights from this event, but it’s worth noting a couple of general points.

The first point is the extraordinary good will that exists in the European Commission, the institution responsible for upholding the spirit of the EU treaties and the origin of most European-level legislation. This was exemplified by the speech of the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom. Not only will her services be responsible for producing a report on the state of corruption in each EU member state, but she reaffirmed the commitment to “mainstream the fight against corruption in everything I and my colleagues do”, and referred stronger public procurement regulations, an enhanced anti-fraud policy and greater use of conditionality in development policy. She was realistic enough to recognise the obstacles that lie beyond the Commission, and “did not underestimate the lobbying from some Member States when the corruption report is released”.

Secondly, although the EU has been criticised for its lack of transparency in some areas – particularly the more inter-governmental practices of the European Council – it can be a model of accountability compared with some Member States. As Philippe Legrain pointed out in his keynote speech, the roots of the current crisis can partly be traced to the conflicts of interest that arose from the intertwining of national elites and “their” finance sectors in many EU states. European-level regulation and supervision, if implemented properly, will help shake up this all-too-cosy relationship.

Lastly, the fight against corruption has to be a public private partnership. The costs of corruption are a huge burden on society – $1 Trn per year according to the World Bank: €120 Bn in the EU alone according to Commission estimates – and a large part of that cost is born by the private sector. One estimate puts the cost of bribery and kickbacks at 25% of the value of public procurement contracts on average. Beyond the rhetoric of corporate responsibility, companies have a major incentive to work with civil society and others to take concerted and decisive action, a point that was echoed in the speech of  Hendrik Bourgeois, Vice President for European Affairs at General Electric, as well as other private sector voices at the conference. The EU has claimed that growth and jobs is at the heart of everything it does. These figures provide a rationale for making corruption central to that strategy.

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