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Anti-Corruption Efforts at the EU Level: Achievements as Policy Goal, Challenges as Policy Tools

Editor’s note: With corruption viewed as a major obstacle for the EU integration of Western Balkan states, considerable political focus is being placed on the topic. This perceptive article exposes some of the often overlooked cultural divergences of public perception and reaction to corruption, and policy flaws that have perpetuated it, at the heart of the issue.

By Geanina Turcanu in Vienna*

Parliamentary representatives of EU members old and new – Spain and Austria, Slovenia and Romania – seemed to have flocked together as (corrupt) birds of a (democratic) feather, as the now famous Sunday Times investigation disclosed in March 2011. The British newspaper’s undercover reporters, pretending to be lobbyists, alleged that Spanish MEP Pablo Zalba, Slovenian MEP Zoran Thaler, Austrian MEP Ernst Strasser and Romanian MEP Adrian Severin were prepared to take bribes in return for political favors.

Yet the already notorious lobby scandal is not the focus of the current analysis. Rather, it serves to raise interest in what is an emerging trend: political consensus around a perception of corruption as a policy goal common to old and new member states, and thus an inherent demand for common tools.

Anti-Corruption Efforts Old and New: an EU Policy in the Making?

The direction of this trend is unclearly defined, and will remain so as long as societal perceptions of corruption (fuelled by corresponding informal checks and balances) continue to vary across (as well as between) old and new member states. Since tackling corruption is considered such an important criterium for integrating the Western Balkans into the EU, its development will have to be watched closely.

The Stockholm Programme pioneers an EU mandate to fight corruption where security challenges are at stake, namely financial interests and cross-border crime. The Lisbon Treaty even grants tackling commonalities through an institutional avenue: the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Still, interpretations of the EU corruption vocabulary differ – in light of inherited social codes. The 2009 Special Eurobarometer Attitudes of Europeans towards corruption indicated worrisome levels of concern (78%) in both new and old member states. However, the survey measures a proxy: perceptions of corruption, which are formed against pre-existing social standards.

That there are no corruption-free societies is not news; nevertheless, the difference between corruption as an exception and corruption as a rule raises a number of essential questions. For example, could corruption as a rule have been curbed through a decade-long EU conditionality? Should the Central and Eastern European former communist states that recently joined the bloc have been left unsupervised, immediately after accession? Have the political elites matured enough to continue the fight against their own corrupted networks?

And, last but not least, has corresponding democratic tuition been imparted to the citizens of new member states? Did they learn when and how they can react?

Legal Framework and Common Tools

The current legal framework places anti-corruption efforts under a monopoly of legal experts. By exclusively proposing tools like police and customs cooperation, rescue services, criminal and civil law cooperation, anti-corruption efforts at the level of EU policy are channelled towards a shared legal fight against security challenges: financial and cross-border crime.

A common goal is an irrefutable achievement, but common tools are problematic as they assume similar recipients of a proposed legal solution. They give no credit to contributions from ethics, political science, sociology or anthropology- revealing striking societal differences across member states, despite EU leverage.

Investigation into structural specificities that shape societal perceptions of corruption is needed for Brussels to avoid the risk of mistaking similar symptoms for identical causes. It is customary that setting goals, which are further pursued with carefully chosen tools, are preceded by serious attempts at accurately delimiting the policy problem.

Irrefutable Achievements: Is Curbing Corruption Equivalent to a Unified EU Policy Goal?

As expected, the drive for progress towards an EU anti-corruption policy was backed by Transparency International (TI) and FLARE (Freedom, Legality and Rights in Europe); non-governmental organisations which provided support to collect signatures via their own campaigns. In May 2010, the European Parliament adopted The Written Declaration on the European Union’s Efforts to Combat Corruption.

The document was co-authored by 5 MEPs from different political groups and of different nationalities, however united by a shared legal background: Monica Macovei (EPP Group – Romania), Simon Busuttil (EPP Group – Malta), Luigi de Magistris (ALDE – Italy), Ana Gomes (SD – Portugal), and the Belgian Green Party member Bart Staes – the last an exception, being an economist. However, because corruption undermines the mere fabric of society, there is a need for further social science analyses to be commissioned.

As the Maltan MEP Simon Busuttil put it then, “this is another step in putting the fight against corruption on the EU agenda. We shall certainly be following up?’

The Lisbon Treaty opened up a window of opportunity for the EU to enforce anti-corruption legislation (Jana Mittermaier, TI), in light of which the Declaration was followed by an Anti-Corruption Public Hearing in October 2010.

Once more, Romanian MEP Monica Macovei was determined to “call upon the Commission and the Council to establish a strong and solid anticorruption monitoring mechanism in the EU” and appealed to member states “to show political will and support such an EU mechanism.” She also added that “the failure to act now puts both taxpayer’s money and the Union’s credibility at high risk. Let’s not pretend we cannot see it!”

Macovei (who served as Justice Minister in Romania from 2003) is credited for the success of the anti-corruption reforms in Romania and Macedonia. After the government reshuffling in 2007, she was Advisor to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Macedonia on anti-corruption issues.

Candidates from former communist states were assigned anti-corruption reforms through EU conditionality, in light of their problematic political inheritance. With the notable exception of a Council Framework Decision of 2003 on combating corruption in the private sector, old member states lacked a common goal, and thus common tools for curbing corruption.

A status quo, which was passed on to the new member states once their accession process was concluded, absolved them of further legal responsibility in supervising their anti-corruption policies. Post-accession empirics tend to show that anti-corruption efforts were undermined by the lack of checks and balances following the conclusion of conditionality. As various cases show, anti-corruption reformers, left unprotected, became victims of economic or political power games.

Unified Anti-Corruption Policy Tools: Challenged by Two Differing Vocabularies?

Active in the debate, anti-corruption expert Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (a political consultant at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin) reinforces the distinction between old and new democracies. If extrapolated into old and new EU member states, the model draws attention to a key aspect for current EU policy efforts.

Corruption embraces substantially different avatars in societies organized around the principle of ethical universalism- namely, the established democracies such as older member states, than in societies organized around the principle of competitive particularism- such as a number of post-communist states, including new member states and candidate countries such as those in the Western Balkans.

Whereas in the former corruption occurs as an exception to institutionalized universalistic codes, in the latter it represents the rule according to which power groups (also known as predatory elites) divide public goods among themselves after winning electoral competitions. Ethical universalism and competitive particularism are extremes of an imagined spectrum (which does not however explain the democratic performances of Greece and Italy as old membe states, or Estonia as a newer one).

Perceptions of Corruption

Although perhaps counterintuitive, there is an indirect relationship between the level of corruption in a given state and the perception of its citizens, as follows: the higher the level of corruption among political elites, the lower the level of perception among citizens.

Thus, in patrimonialist regimes – which are very corrupt – the perception of corruption is low. As they undergo the process of democratization, citizens develop a moderate level of perception in competitive particularist regimes- which are moderately corrupt.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, fully democratic societies – which are the least corrupt – generate a high perception of corruption. This division carries essential implications for structuring anti-corruption policy efforts. Explicitly, it is necessary that recognising commonalities be complemented in new member states by preparing the soil for uprooted institutions via translation of corresponding mentalities.

Illustrative in this regard are the dysfunctionalities of the Scandinavian ombudsman, in new member states. This is a most democratic institution planted in the forms of a hostile, undemocratic mentality. Transparency International is agreed that “corruption in the EU has the following repercussions: [it] undermines good governance, the rule of law and fundamental rights, leads to the misallocation or misuse of EU resources, harms the private sector and distorts the EU internal market, the push for progress in the fight against corruption [and] considerably slows down as soon as countries become EU member states. ”

Last but not least, the NGO adds that “more needs to be done to protect people who report irregularities – whistleblowers.”

And, a summary of a September 15, 2010 European Parliament hearing on anticorruption (published on the Monica Macovei website) indicates an established causality between corruption and the EU economic crisis. Furthermore, it explored potential paths towards an EU anticorruption policy, and a mechanism to monitor its implementation in the member states. It lacked references to petty corruption, in education and health.

Crafting New EU Policy Between Divergent Democracies, and Challenges for Civil Society

That the Swedish are also dissatisfied with the performance of national anti-corruption policy does not make Sweden a corrupt state. Instead, it does show that the Swedish are democratically literate.

Specifically because in older democracies public goods such as order, rule of law, health, education and so on are distributed impersonally among citizens, any infringement upon them is signaled as a danger. On the contrary, in new democracies, social status (i.e., the distance from the group in power) sets the standard for public resource acquisition.

In older democracies, citizens lose trust in politicians on account of their perceived failure to mitigate cases of corruption in the private sector. In new democracies, citizens lose trust in politicians because the private sector is “a fiction,” designed to provide a legal framework for leaders to engage in rent-seeking behavior.

If citizens’ attitudes motivate anti-corruption policy (as indicated by the 2009 Eurobarometer), then in-depth country analyses from interdisciplinary perspectives need to step in for the search for tools. Mungiu notes that civil society as an anti-corruption actor undertook successful initiatives during the pre-membership conditionality period in new member states.

Ironically, however, with accession, these groups lost their financial support and thus impact. Left unprotected, reformers became victims of the power games they regulated. The consequence was the dissolution of a fragile democratic mentality in the making.

Equally significant is that Mungiu draws attention to the substantial amounts of money wasted on campaigns in the public sector instead of empowering citizens. Sharpening anti-corruption awareness seems to be still competing with internalized expectations of being treated similarly to those sharing one’s status.

At the end of the day, the question remains: would curbing corruption bring a better life to citizens in new member states, compared to simply joining the existing corrupted networks? In a nutshell, whereas most old member states rely on an institutionalised politico-judicial maturity, complementary checks and balances must be added to curb anti-corruption in some newer ones.


*Geanina Turcanu is a political analyst with interests in EU policy, legal issues and the Balkans. She is currently serving as a Project Assistant at the University of Vienna, and is an admin and writer for the Bucharest BabelBlog.

Geanina earned an MA in Political Science from Central European University in Budapest, and was previously in Valencia’s Polytechnic University as an Erasmus student in the Faculty of Management and Business Administration. She also holds a BA in International Relations and European Studies from the Faculty of European Studies at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In addition to her native Romanian, Geanina speaks English, Spanish and French.