Brussels (Brussels Morning) The COVID-19 pandemic is aggravating corruption in the EU, increasing socio-economic disparities and bolstering authoritarian regimes, according to a report by Transparency International (TI) released this week.
The TI’s report, part of the Global Corruption Barometer 2021, disclosed that 44% of the 40,600 respondents in the 27 member states believe that corruption retained its hold in the last 12 months while 32% maintain that it has increased.
Only 16% said that it has decreased, while the remaining 8% did not respond.
“EU countries are known for being rich, stable and democratic. However, their clean image is undermined by issues ranging from socio-economic disparities and instances of growing authoritarianism to problems of corruption, which affect all the nations of the political bloc”, the executive summary of the report states.
The study, prepared between October and December 2020, lists the main institutions and/or professions that European respondents most frequently cite as being responsible for a culture of corruption.
Ministers topped the list (28%), followed by business administrators and offices of Presidents and Prime Ministers (both 23%), government authorities (22%), municipalities (19%), non-governmental organizations (16%), judges and magistrates (14%) and the police (11%).
The TI report refers to various scandals involving elected politicians “getting rich with secret deals”, “accepting bribes to cover up human rights abuses in a neighboring country” and “offering passports to criminals in exchange for investment”.
The TI analysis denounces banks, accountants and real estate agents specifically for not doing enough to stop the corrupt and the criminal from laundering or parking dirty money in the EU.
According to the report, in the view of an overwhelming majority of the Europeans surveyed, corruption levels remain the same or are on the rise in their respective countries. Moreover, there is a widespread belief that governments are mishandling the phenomenon.
Hungary and Poland emerge as prime examples of disregard for the rule of law and abuse of power.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse. In countries like Hungary and Poland, politicians use the crisis as an excuse to undermine democracy. Others see it as a possibility for profit, as demonstrated by the German lobby and the case of mask purchases”, TI states.
“All of that could change as the vast majority of people surveyed know they can make a difference in the anti-corruption movement”, the report asserts, pointing out that the measures exist to cut the funding of countries that violate the rule of law.
The extent to which private interests control governments is another reason cited by many of those surveyed as a cause for concern.
Also noted are the close ties many executives and bankers enjoy with politicians, making them the most corruption-prone institutions, which, according to the study, underscores why EU residents are so often concerned about the relationship between business and government.
Even though bribery rates may be low, TI says, many depend on personal knowledge in order to obtain services, while governments seem to have made little progress in tackling various forms of corruption.
“With more than 106 million people across the EU struggling with petty corruption – through bribes or personal knowledge – governments must do more to solve the problem”, the Berlin-based non-governmental organization argues.
TI claims the survey results indicate that nearly half of the residents in Europe feel their respective governments are “doing a terrible job fighting corruption”. This calls for “concentrated efforts” by the EU and national governments to address the issue. That means better law enforcement along with “the prevention of favouritism in public life”, the report declares.
Whistleblowing and lack of accountability
The majority of respondents in the EU-27 (64%) believe they can make a difference in the fight against corruption. However, in order to do so, efforts have to be made to remove the barriers that stand in their way. For example, there is a compelling need for robust legislation to protect those who denounce maladministration.
“The notion that corruption often goes unpunished and the fear of retaliation for reporting acts of corruption” have to be addressed, the report says. Respondents were in two minds about how to act, with 45% fearful they would become targets for some form of official retaliation, while 47% had no such concern.
As for how to address the lack of accountability issue, TI is calling for full implementation of the EU whistleblower directive, which it describes as a “key step in providing adequate channels and protection for people who wish to challenge corruption”.Recently, the US Helsinki Committee encouraged the European Parliament to include corruption in the Magnitsky Act, which the EU adopted in December 2020.