The European Commission said yesterday (3 February) that its first anti-corruption handbook for the 28 member states showed that there were "no corruption-free zones", but officials declined to name and shame individual countries.

Commission: Corruption costs EU €120 billion yearly

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The Commission published yesterday (3 February) its much awaited 40-page anti-corruption report covering the overall situation in the 28-country bloc, coupled with individual chapters on each country, of approximately a dozen pages each. The package is supplemented by a 230-page special Eurobarometer survey on corruption.

The EU executive said that its rather modest ambition was to launch a debate on corruption and identify ways in which the EU could help fight the scourge.

Corruption is estimated to cost the EU economy €120 billion per year. That amounts to about 1% of EU GDP and represents only a little less than the annual budget of the European Union.

The anti-corruption package has been in the pipeline since Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced the establishment of an EU anti-corruption reporting mechanism in June 2011, saying a first report would be published by the end of 2013 (see background). The publication of the report was delayed, she admitted, adding that the quality of the report was now better.

Malmström told reporters that the handbook assessed how each member state tackled corruption, how existing laws and policies worked in practice, and contained suggestions for how each EU country could step up the fight against corruption.

“The Report will hopefully provide everyone - politicians, the public, media and practitioners – with a useful tool for taking national corruption policy forward,” Malmström said.

Crisis increased corruption?

According to the Eurobarometer, a vast majority (76%) of Europeans think that corruption is widespread in their own country. Also, more than half of Europeans (56%) think the level of corruption in their country has increased over the past three years, an apparent indication that the eurozone crisis has impacted negatively on the fight against corruption.

The report shows the state of play in the member states om terms of legislation, institutional framework, and problematic areas for each individual country. “Good practices” are identified with suggestions for “future steps”.

The report cites an integrity programme in the Flemish region of Belgium as an example of good practice. Wallonia, the country's French-speaking region, has no such initiative.

The report also advises Belgium to increase the capacity of its justice and law enforcement system to prevent the statute of limitations on corruption cases from expiring during lengthy criminal proceedings.

Malmström strongly insisted that the Commission made no “ranking” of corruption levels in EU countries, saying that other organisations were engaged in this activity. The NGO Transparency International had ranked EU countries according to perceived corruption levels, with the “most corrupt” being Greece, Bulgaria and Italy, and the least Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

The commissioner was also careful not to speak of dividing lines and of major divisions between North and South, acknowledging only that Bulgaria and Romania were special cases, which required continued monitoring.

Too much diplomacy?

The Commission was also careful in the report not to mention countries by name. Sources told EurActiv that EU countries had rejected the option of "naming and shaming", and this had been the main reason for the delay of the report's publication by a few months.

The paper says that “in some member countries”, vulnerability to corruption in public procurement processes is the main problem, while “in others” political party financing is not transparent enough. Widespread corruption at the level of local authorities is another example, with “many healthcare patients" having to "pay under the table to receive proper medical care”.

“In one Member State, numerous cases of alleged illegal party funding at central or regional level were also linked to organised crime groups”, the report says, without mentioning Italy.

The report also shies away from naming individuals or parties. The report cites "investigations involving a former treasurer of a political party" in Spain. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, last year became embroiled in a corruption scandal, saying that he made a mistake in trusting the former treasurer of his Popular Party, Luis Bárcenas.

Spain also witnessed another corruption scandal involving Princess Cristina, the youngest daughter of Spain's King Juan Carlos, and her husband Inaki Urdangarin.

Malmström said that the idea had been discussed to conduct a corruption investigation into the EU institutions but that it was decided that the EU executive could not do this independently.

EurActiv asked Malmström why the EU survey asked business representatives if corruption was bad for their business and not the other way around.

“As you can imagine, being responsible for law and order, we did not ask that question. But I think you’re right. I think a lot of companies actually make good business out of corrupt contracts,” she said.