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Are transparency and democracy the best ways to fight corruption?

What is corruption? Transparency International defines corruption as the “abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. This doesn’t just mean taking bribes; it could include the awarding of government contracts (or cushy jobs) to family, friends, or associates. Lobbying and the so-called “revolving door” between the public and private sector are not technically corruption, but if unregulated both can lead to state capture by oligarchs (which inevitably then opens the door to corruption). Corruption is always easier to get away with in a climate of secrecy and opacity (such as Swiss banking secrecy).

What do our readers think? Many of our readers worry about the impact of corruption on democracy. We put some of your comments on corruption to Austrian Social Democratic (SPÖ) politician Selma YildirimVice-Chair of the Corruption Investigation Committee launched in the Austrian federal parliament following the corruption scandal around former chancellor Sebastian Kurz. We also put your comments to Bastian Obermayer, an award-winning investigative journalist with Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. He received the Panama Papers and was involved in the unveiling of the Ibiza Affair and the most recent Suisse Secrets, among others.

How corrupt is European politics? To kick things off, we wanted to get a sense of the scale of the problem. For example, a comment from Andy suggests the situation is almost hopeless, with corruption rampant globally. Is he too pessimistic? How corrupt is European politics really?

How would journalist (and European Young LeaderBastian Obermayer respond?

? Now, I would like to say that it is not as corrupt as you might think. But that is only true for a part of it. Nevertheless, I would like to take up the cudgels for the upright politicians who do not take bribes. That is really the vast majority. But the few exceptions that we look into as investigative journalists naturally shape the picture. That is a bit sad. Of course, this is also due to our media system. We report on the exceptions, on spectacular cases. Of course, we don’t report and say: ‘Another day today when 98% of politics didn’t take a bribe.’ So, I think in Europe we still have it relatively good. There are completely different areas where there is much more corruption.

What would Austrian politician Selma Yildirim say to the same question?

? It is as corrupt as citizens participate or do not participate in politics. I think that is a very central question. The higher the participation, the better a democracy functions, the less corruption there will be, the less corrupt people will be able to take advantage and not cheat others – and by that, I mean the majority of the population. That is why I always find participation very important in this debate – that we do not remain indifferent and that we do not allow ourselves to be intimidated, no matter where and at what level elections take place, that we look very closely at the people in whom we place our trust.

Next up, Hans wrote to us arguing that corruption exploits human nature (and greed is natural). According to this logic, Hans suggest it is impossible to completely eliminate corruption. What do our experts think of that? Do we just have to accept corruption?

Would Bastian Obermayer agree?

? No. I do believe that there is a big difference if someone behaves corruptly in their private life. We all know this. I recently had to contract a building company in our flat and the first two companies asked if they could not do it on the black. And of course, that’s not allowed. That’s not bribery in that sense, but it is bribery of the little man, corruption of the little man, so to speak. It is up to everyone not to take part in this. But of course, the responsibility for people in political leadership positions is much greater. As a people, they have different demands. And anyone who is not up to them has no place there.

What would Selma Yildirim say?

? No way! I don’t see it so pessimistically either. Firstly, I don’t believe that this sentence is true, that everyone has a price. We all have the responsibility to evaluate for ourselves between right and wrong, no matter in which situation of life, whether in our everyday professional life, in public life, in private life. We are challenged to evaluate for ourselves again and again, every day, in many different situations. But under no circumstances would I accept that corruption cannot be fought. And under no circumstances would I give up. I even have the impression that the more people are interested in political issues, also economic issues, simply in issues that touch us all somehow, the higher the chance that we can live in a fairer society.

What counts first and foremost is to look courageously, to point out, to name injustices. Again and again, I have the impression that this belief in fighting corruption is lacking. But I am convinced that if we all believe in a society free from corruption, we can also end, reduce and ideally completely prevent corruption. It is possible. And that is my appeal, not to give up here and not to say “it was always like that anyway, corruption exists everywhere anyway.” We know it is unfortunately widespread, but we can also abolish it!”

Another Debating Europe reader, Giulia, is concerned that corruption and bribery might be much more common on a European level than in the Member States. We asked Bastian Obermayer: Is EU politics more corrupt than national politics?

? I actually think that there is a danger lurking there because people don’t look that closely at the European level. Most people are interested in what is very close to them. The further away something is, the greater the vulnerability. Then the decisions and resolutions are not observed as closely as in the local or national parliament.

We saw this, for example, in the Azerbaijan affair. Most of the politicians from Germany who were involved were not so well known before. They are known now; Strenz and Lindner for example, precisely because they were involved. But they were not big names before. And at the European level, many can actually operate somewhat below the attention threshold. That is a danger and speaks for the fact that we should all get much more involved in Europe.

From Selma Yildirim we wanted to know if corruption is mostly a problem in Southern and Eastern EU Member States, as our reader Clay argues:

? No, it is not. As you say, there is always an objective assessment by internationally independent observatories or organisations such as Transparency International, for example, but also many other international networks, which assess without fear and financially independently, i.e., establish criteria and assess according to which standards a country is considered corrupt or not corrupt. According to this result, we see that not only these listed countries are affected by corruption, but also many others. I live and am politically active in Austria. And we have also been experiencing the problem of corruption in Austria very intensively for three years, but generally for many years, if not decades.

What we are noticing more and more: The awareness of “What is corrupt?, What is considered corrupt?, What is abuse of power?” – there is a lack of awareness. You can feel it, your perceptions are not deceptive. But recognising and naming it, consciously making oneself and others aware of what is already corrupt, or what corruption means, when it is actually an abuse of power, that is still missing. And there is still a lot of work ahead of us. And if I may stay in Austria: We realise that it is very important for the media to act independently. Even in a very highly developed, very prosperous country like Austria, it is still the case that not all media are free in their reporting and that a great deal of influence is exerted on the policies of those in power through advertisements. That is of course very manipulative.

The same applies to whether or not I have an independent and well-resourced anti-corruption agency. Or also: What does it look like in a state apparatus – how free from political influence is, e.g., an administrative authority or the judiciary, law enforcement agencies in general? And here, too, we have major deficiencies even in Austria and are working on supporting these institutions well, equipping them more independently and making sure that the separation of powers is also respected. The rule of law and democracy can only function with a separation of powers. That means three pillars that should control each other. And that means as well: power needs control – effective control!

Finally, in answer to a question we posed on how to strengthen European unity, Marko responded simply “less corruption”. Fair enough. How can we achieve that in practice?

Here’s how Bastian Obermayer responded to Marko:

? Any kind of corruption destroys faith in politics. That is a huge problem! That is also the reason why many people turn away from politics, in many countries. What we need are much stricter transparency laws for every public part of politics and stricter private measures for the private citizen. For every person in politics, it must be comprehensible at the European level where they get their money from, who hires them, who pays them and for what. We need that throughout Europe.

This is coming little by little, here and there, but I believe that we must become much stricter. And then hope that things will improve. I also believe that it is a development. I do believe that there is less corruption in most countries now than in the ’70s and ’80s, when they just handed out bundles of money. But I’m not quite sure yet, because of course we can’t really look into the level of systemic corruption by the big players like Facebook yet. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Here’s what Selma Yildirim had to say:

? I agree, we can implement Marko’s wish! We can make it happen by making the European Union more democratic and closer to its citizens. That is where I see a key function and a solution and I simply believe that the vast majority rejects and condemns corruption and wants to have a clean, good, and just society, so also a just Union. And we can achieve that together if we participate and if we also make the European Union more democratic.

How corrupt is Europe? Can greater transparency and citizen engagement in politics help stamp out corruption? Send us YOUR thoughts and questions in the form below!

Foto: AndreyPopov

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