Friday, November 21, 2008

Europe View #106

Cleaning up the act

Nov 20th 2008

The EU’s watchdogs stand in need of better watching

The European Union’s thinking about corruption goes roughly like this. It is a problem for governments, chiefly in the new member states. The best way to fight it is by making entry into the EU conditional on progress. That will create the political will which must, sooner or later, bring results.

That approach is not working. Anti-corruption efforts have stalled or reversed. Countries such as the Slovenia, Romania, Latvia and the Czech Republic have closed down or weakened their anti-corruption offices. Efforts by the two newest members, Romania and Bulgaria, are ineffective. Croatia, though gripped by a ghastly outbreak of gangland violence, is moving swiftly towards the EU.

The real story is that the prospect of EU membership encourages elites to pay lip service to the anti-corruption cause, but no more than that. Once the conditionality is gone, the pressure stops.

Efforts to train officials and create the right sort of structures in ex-communist countries seem to have little or no effect. In a phrase familiar from western development efforts in non-European countries, “the solution is the problem”: in other words, the agencies and officials being entrusted with the means to fight corruption are just as bad (weak, corrupt or incompetent) as the people that they are supposed to be policing.

Those who do try to change things risk being fired, not promoted. Corruption-fighters such as Romania’s Daniel Morar or Slovenia’s Drago Kos are relying increasingly on support from outside to hang on to their jobs.

Awareness campaigns are not the answer: the public is already highly aware of the level of corruption, having first-hand experience of it. Such campaigns stoke a sense of futility: Eurobarometer opinion surveys show that easterners are increasingly disillusioned with the ethical standards of their elected representatives and public servants; west Europeans are morose about the same public officials as well as the impact of corruption on the EU as a whole.

These gloomy ideas—as they came to light in a “lessons learned” workshop at the recent International Anti-corruption Conference in Athens—should give EU decision-makers cause for serious thought. One of the organisers, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, of Berlin’s Hertie School, argues that in some new and future member states corruption is not seen as “a mostly individual infringement of a norm of government fairness and impartiality” but as the opposite: the normal way of distributing public services; to friends, allies, clients and bosses. Using judicial punishments against something that is largely regarded as normal behaviour (at least among the perpetrators) is unlikely to work. Nor are outside watchdogs such as OLAF, the EU’s in-house fraud-busting outfit, likely to get to grips with the problem, given their assumptions of “perfect functioning of the rule of law and of impartial bureaucracy”.

One answer is to set up a much better means of measuring anti-corruption efforts. The existing benchmarks focus on the creation of formal institutions, not on their impact. They also create an unhelpful mixture of smugness in some countries (“What us, corrupt? No way—try next door!”) and paranoia in others (“Why pick on us? What about them? And you?”). It would be good if new yardsticks included all the EU members, not just the new and future ones.

Perhaps the EU needs a commissioner for anti-corruption, or a special envoy, to be directly responsible for following up on commitments made during the enlargement process.

But the best approach is to use the expertise that can be found outside government, particularly in the voluntary sector. The enemy of corruption is public-spiritedness; the stronger that gets, the greater the chances of both constraint and redress. It is as simple—and as complicated—as that.

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