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No country untouched

Bernd Riegert / gswFebruary 4, 2014

The European Commission's first ever report on corruption in its member states offers new evidence that corruption is widespread in the political bloc. Eastern states as well as those in crisis have the biggest problem.

Symbolbild Korruption
Image: picture alliance/CTK

Readers would be looking in vain if they scour the EU Commission's lengthy report for a list that shows which countries in the European Union are most corrupt and which are doing the best job of combating bribery and other sources of unfair influence. In the report she headed, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström refused to hand out grades for the 28 member states.

"It gives a frank assessment on how each member state tackles corruption, how existing laws and policies work in practice, and we suggest also how each member state can step up their work against corruption," Malmström told DW.

The European Commission does point out after its 28 individual reports that there is a divide between the North and the South and also between the East and the West.

There's no country in which everything is perfect, Cecilia Malmström stresses: "The report shows clearly that the level of corruption varies from member state to member state, but it also shows that it affects all member states. There are no corruption-free zones in Europe."

Tighter laws for officials

Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany are among the countries in the top category when it comes to fighting corruption, but the study's authors noted a few problems in Germany.

The Commission recommends sharpening laws against bribes and corruption among officials. The country, it said, needs rules for politicians who switch to private industry after their terms in office in order to prevent politicians from joining companies they may have just helped while in office. The case of the former head of Merkel's chancellery, Ronald Pofalla, who reportedly wants to switch to German rail company Deutsche Bahn, recently made headlines in Germany.

A protest sign reading "To free our country against the mafia," displayed in Bulgaria (c) BGNES
Bulgarians protested in late 2013 against government corruptionImage: BGNES

The study's authors also note that there a number of questions when it comes to party and election campaign financing.

The officials in Brussels praised engineering company Siemens for implementing what the Commission called a model system for controlling corruption within the company after a scandal had emerged.

'Serious situation' in Bulgaria

On the other end of the spectrum, Cecilia Malmström finds the usual suspects. In Greece, Romania and Bulgaria, corruption in granting public contracts and bribery in the health system represent massive problems.

For Bulgaria, which has repeatedly been rocked by corruption scandals at the national level, the commissioner has a less than concrete message. "The situation in Bulgaria is very, very serious. Our message for Bulgaria is: Yes, there is a problem, but what can you do to improve the situation? That problem exists in many member states. How can we and the states better work together in order to find ways to combat corruption?"

The EU Commission intends to have a wide-ranging discussion about the country reports, but it is not planning any changes to laws or punishments. After all, doing so wouldn't be within the agency's purview - the regulation of such matters is left to the 28 member states.

120 billion in damages

Malmström hopes to see changes because each year, corruption costs the EU damages of 120 billion euros ($162.34 billion), which amounts roughly to the EU's shared budget.

European citizens have few illusions on the issue. In fact, they see themselves surrounded by corruption, as two surveys the Commission presented on Monday (03.02.2014) show.

"76 percent of Europeans think that corruption is widespread in their country. More than half of the Europeans think that the level of corruption in their country has increased over the past years," Malmström said, reiterating her plea for the members to take action.

After all, it was the member states themselves that commissioned the report, which finds that over half of the states have a lack of transparency when it comes to financing political parties. The Commission estimates that every fourth contract to construct buildings or streets involves corruption.

An infographic detailing perceptions of corruption around the world (C) DW
Transparency International has no qualms about ranking countries, unlike the EU Commission

Transparency International urges action

Europe's efforts to fight corruption have already been thoroughly investigated. Along with the EU Commission, the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, the OECD and the United Nations have undertaken analyses and offered recommendations.

The NGO Transparency International is also known for its Corruption Perceptions Index. Ronny Patz from the organization's Brussels office notes that the facts in the EU Commission's report are nothing new - now it's about acting on them.

"The key question will of course be to what extent the member states react to the EU Commission's recommendations in the coming weeks and months. That's the standard by which we'll measure the success of this first corruption report. It's supposed to be published every two years. Then we'll see whether it's the same issues," Patz said.

In April, Transparency International will present its own corruption report on European Union institutions, which also give out public contracts to the tune of a billion euros each year. The EU itself was not studied in the report Cecilia Malmström headed.

"We cannot supervise ourselves. Others have to do that for us, such as the European Court of Auditors," she said.