Creeping populism is seducing thousands of citizens who seem to swallow the anti-elite narrative attacking corrupt officials, but the European Union – which has a positive track record in fighting clientelist schemes – must preach for more transparency to unsettle nationalists’ claims, says the boss of Transparency International.
Reacting to the publication of the Europe edition of the 2016 Global Corruption Barometer last week (16 November), Carl Dolan, the director of Transparency International EU Office, said that the most striking things about the Trump and Farage narratives was the railing against corrupt elites.
“If you put to one side the incongruity of the billionaire and the public school educated stockbroker lining themselves up with the common man against ‘elites’, then the other thing that will strike you about this narrative is how widely it resonates,” Dolan argued after the release of the poll, noting that Americans and Europeans are more concerned about corrupt government officials than they are of terrorist attacks or economic collapse.
“The challenge now is to take back the discourse of corruption from nationalist and extremist groups, and for governments and liberal institutions to fashion credible, far-reaching and visible anti-corruption policies,” he said.
Even though European countries do not top the list of the most corrupt countries in the poll, one out of four EU citizens is ready to speak out and expose corrupt behaviour.
According to the recent survey, covering 22 out of the 28 EU member states, 35% of EU citizens said they are afraid of retaliation or a negative backlash such as losing their job. In France, The Netherlands and Portugal at least half of the people expressed that concern.
At the same time, the majority of European citizens feel personally compelled to report an incident of corruption. In France, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, UK and Portugal more than 80% said they would feel obliged to speak up if they witnessed wrongdoing.
Bribery rates vary considerably between countries and the lowest are all found in the European Union. In Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain, Cyprus, Estonia, Portugal and the UK, one in 20 or fewer have paid a bribe. The EU countries with the highest bribery rates are Hungary, Lithuania and Romania (from 22% to 29%).
To uncover wrongdoing, whistleblowers across the EU must be protected and supported when they witness or suspect wrongdoing, campaigners insisted.
But legal protection is uneven across the EU and poor to non-existent in most EU member states. Ireland adopted a strong bill in 2014, and earlier this month France passed the Loi Sapin which includes provisions for whistleblower protection.
However, Germany and Poland are slow in making progress, and the current whistleblowing legislation process in Italy is stuck in the Senate with an uncertain outcome.
Campaigners like Transparency International are pushing for a European law to protect whistleblowers.
The EU – and the European Commission in particular – has a good story to tell about its role in the fight against corruption, said Dolan.
“It has proposed some ground-breaking transparency legislation, for example the current proposal to end corporate secrecy by making ‘beneficial owners’ of companies publicly available. But it has a woeful track-record of promoting itself as an anti-corruption champion to other governments, let alone citizens,” added Dolan.
As a result of the Luxleaks scandal, exposed by whistleblowers Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet, the EU has pushed through new rules to fight harmful tax avoidance practices.
Two whistleblowers have been found guilty in the so-called Luxleaks tax scandal, which put Jean-Claude Junker under pressure on his first weeks as president of the European Commission.
Dolan lamented the lack of visibility of the EU when it comes to advertising its work on transparency.
Commission should lead the way and say it
He noted that at the UK government’s anti-corruption summit in May, “where John Kerry and various heads of state rubbed shoulders, the EU was represented by a Commission Head of Unit.”
“Citizens who feel remote from the EU are easily misled into believing that multinationals and the wealthy have untrammelled influence on policy makers. The truth is much more nuanced of course, but no-one will believe the bona fides of any one associated with ‘Brussels’,” he added.
The best option is to pursue a transparency agenda and all institutions setting new standards in lobbying transparency, listing all lobby meetings and refusing to meet unregistered lobbyists, he said, referring to the new Commission proposal to have a mandatory registry.
The EU unveiled plans Wednesday (28 September) to make lobbyists register before meeting a wider range of top officials, after a series of high-profile cases concerning the transparency of ex-Commissioners.