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For a more transparent Europe

27 May 2011.

Published in Handelsblatt (DE), El Mundo (ES), Malta Independent (MT) and others

Corruption is still a major problem in Europe, writes EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. Photo: Istockphoto
OP-ED

Four out of five EU citizens think that corruption is a serious problem in their home country. Now, an EU Anti-Corruption Report will give an outspoken account of the state of play of anti-corruption efforts in Europe.

Europe has never been as open and transparent as today. This is in large part thanks to the democratic evolutions over the last decades. But at the same time, four out of five EU citizens think that corruption is a serious problem in their home country, and data from Transparency International shows that one in twenty paid a bribe last year. It is clear that a lot remains to be done to fight corruption in the EU.

First and foremost, transparency, accountability and honesty are essential if we want to tackle corruption successfully. But more than anything, we need political will and commitment by leaders and decision-makers at all levels. There are already a number of international mechanisms monitoring how countries fight corruption, but they will not lead to real change if they are not also accompanied by political determination and strong enforcement. Also, the anti-corruption mechanisms that do exist are international – not European.

The European Commission therefore decides today to establish a specific EU monitoring and assessment mechanism, an EU Anti-Corruption Report. It will give honest and outspoken account of the state of play of anti-corruption efforts – both good and bad, failures and achievements – in all 27 Member States of the EU. It will be written by the Commission based on a variety of expert reports and sources, and published every two years starting in 2013.

Rather than focusing on institutional arrangements and legal provisions, the report should look at how effectively Member States enforce anti-corruption standards on the ground, how they can learn from each other, and how the recommendations of various international bodies are followed up in practice. Clearly, the report cannot cover every detail for all of the 27 countries. It will focus on a few key themes, such as corruption in public procurement or the protection of whistleblowers, and put the spotlight on new trends in corruption at EU level. But it will also include recommendations to Member States for how to improve.

I hope that this will create extra momentum all across the EU and result in stronger political will to fight this type of crime, which costs European tax payers an estimated 120 billion Euros every year, or one percent of the EU GDP. And the report will also be a useful basis for future EU measures to combat corruption.

This initiative should not come as a surprise. When Transparency International recently ranked the most corrupt countries in the world, almost one third of EU Member States only managed to get five points out of ten. If all 27 EU countries were to be seen as one, the EU would have been ranked around number 30 – just above Botswana and Puerto Rico. It is true that some EU Member States have been more successful in fighting corruption than others, but we can safely say that there are no corruption-free countries in Europe, and that tackling this crime remains a serious challenge for all of us.

Apart from moral considerations, corruption is a huge problem in organised crime, as it is linked to smuggling of cigarettes, illegal drugs, prostitution, car-theft, and extortion. And comparative country studies have shown that it has negative impact on investment and capital productivity, ultimately affecting economic growth and public welfare. Last but not least, corruption undermines citizens' confidence in political institutions and weakens democracy.

If we are to be successful in fighting corruption in the EU, this must be part of all policy areas. To back up the new report, the European Commission therefore commits today to a stronger focus on corruption in all EU policies. In the coming years, I expect to see improvements in judicial and police cooperation, modernised EU rules on confiscation of criminal assets, a revised public procurement legislation, better crime statistics, closer attention to corruption issues in countries seeking to join the EU and in our neighbourhood, and more firmness with countries benefiting from EU cooperation and development assistance.

At the same time, we need to make sure that our EU funding is distributed correctly. We still have some work to do internally within the EU institutions. I am therefore glad that the Commission will soon publish a strategy for how to combat fraud with EU funds more effectively.

If the EU Anti-Corruption Report and the Commission's commitment to fight corruption can help those who want to play by the rules, those who want to foster transparency and those who think accountability is to be taken seriously, then it may be the beginning of a much needed change in Europe.