Thursday, June 14, 2012

The EU must fight corruption and defend the rule of law

The fight against corruption and national maladministration is currently very much on the minds of policy-makers in Brussels. This is because the eurozone crisis and concerns over the rule of law in newer EU members, including Bulgaria and Romania, make clear an embarrassing truth about European integration. The EU is a joint law-making body, single currency area and common travel zone where countries have often very different attitudes towards public accountability, quality of administration and the prevention of graft.

Corruption and the weakness of national institutions is a scourge right across central, eastern and southern Europe, according to a recent report by Transparency International (TI). The report measured the ‘national integrity’ of 25 EU countries, finding that “Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have serious deficits in public sector accountability and deep-rooted problems of inefficiency, malpractice and corruption, which are neither sufficiently controlled nor sanctioned.” In addition, TI reports that positive progress towards reform in newer member-states has slowed, and in some cases reversed, since accession, particularly in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. But Bulgaria and Romania remain the most corrupt.

Hitherto, officials accepted divergences in governing standards in the EU as an unalterable fact of life, and certainly too difficult to address in the ultra-politically correct world of ministerial meetings and diplomatic working groups. But now the mismatch between national administrations in ethics and efficiency is one of the most salient political problems obstructing efforts to stabilise the euro, calm tensions within the Schengen area of passport-free travel and restore the popularity of EU enlargement in older member-states.

Poor public administration in Greece – in terms of its budgetary reporting and refugee protection – is partly responsible for that country’s tenuous position within both the euro and the Schengen areas. In Bulgaria and Romania, corruption and low judicial standards remain a serious source of concern five years after accession to the Union, damaging both countries’ chances of joining Schengen as well as the credibility of the EU enlargement process. And in Hungary, the government of Viktor Orban seems determined to limit the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, a nod towards authoritarianism hardly becoming an EU member-state. (See the 2012 report on media freedom and the rule of law in Hungary, by Freedom House, an NGO.)
What – if anything – can be done to address such issues at European level? The EU has the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, under which candidates for membership must have functioning market economies, observe the rule of law and respect human rights. However, the European Commission’s leverage to police these conditions mostly evaporates after the candidate joins the EU and gains equality of status with other members. If a country later crosses the threshold from merely corrupt and inefficient to despotic government, the EU’s treaties allow for other member-states to suspend its voting rights. But this is seen as a ‘nuclear’ option by European governments, designed as a deterrent rather than a tool, given the implications involved for national sovereignty.

The Commission thinks that it can at least improve efforts to fight graft with a new ‘EU anti-corruption report’ to be published every two years from 2013. (Its officials estimate that corruption costs member-states collectively around €120 billion a year.) Rather than rank countries in order of their relative virtue, as Transparency International does (see its annual ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’), the Commission will focus instead on issues such as public procurement where widespread corruption negatively impacts the single market. The reports will not name and shame specific countries. Nor are any sanctions envisaged for those national administrations which fail to address persistent problems. Such initiatives are worthy but lack teeth.

What the EU really needs is an ex post means to ensure that member countries would still pass the Copenhagen criteria if they were to re-apply for membership. In July, the Commission will report on how much progress Bulgaria and Romania have made in efforts to counter corruption, reform their judiciaries and tackle organised crime. This is the so-called ‘co-operation and verification mechanism’ (CVM) that the two countries undertook to follow in return for EU membership. Politicians in Bucharest and Sofia now chafe at being singled out for special treatment amongst their EU counterparts and would dearly love to see the CVM discontinued after its five-year anniversary next month. This is despite the fact that both countries have failed to deliver fully on solemn promises of reform that they made in 2007.

Instead, EU leaders should agree in principle that any member found to be in persistent breach of the Union’s commitment to the rule of law and good governance could be subject to a CVM, rather than a suspension of voting rights. If a majority of EU countries agree, the definition of such a breach could include instances where corruption or maladministration has threatened the stability of the euro or Schengen areas. And, unlike the current situation with Bulgaria and Romania, the Commission should be able to impose sanctions – such as the suspension of EU funds – when countries refuse to discuss problems or make progress towards meeting certain benchmarks. Officials should include this idea in proposals for a new ‘political union’ currently being drawn up to stabilise the eurozone.

Governments – whatever their fears for the euro or free movement – are likely to take a dim view of further Commission interference in an area where national sensitivities could hardly run higher. Furthermore, a country's level of tolerance for corruption and poor administrative practices is deeply engrained in its culture, history and legal traditions. Real progress is dependent on a cultural shift in what is popularly deemed as acceptable behaviour in businesses, courts or the government in the country in question. Such change takes time and bureaucratic sanctions imposed by the EU can play only a complementary role.

Nevertheless, it is equally unlikely that voters will accept closer political union without stronger EU tools to monitor the performance of public administrations and address concerns over corruption and low judicial standards in existing and future members.

Hugo Brady is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

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