Aug. 7, 2015

Europe’s impatience with misbehaviour drives corruption crackdown

    Story by Tony Barber
    Romanian prosecutors accuse a former finance minister of stashing three gold bars, $90,000 in cash and a French impressionist artwork in a safe at a friend’s home. A Spanish high court judge asserts that the ruling Popular party (PP) engaged in illegal financing activities from 1990 to 2008, and that the case should go to trial.


    In Italy, the transport minister resigns after dozens of government officials and businessmen are placed under investigation, suspected of involvement in rigged public works contracts worth €25bn. Meanwhile, Britain’s anti-establishment UK Independence party expels one of its European Parliament legislators for an alleged attempt to fiddle a restaurant expenses bill.

    The lesson from these four incidents, each of which occurred this month, is that prosecutors, judges and even political leaders themselves are, in much of Europe, becoming more serious about uncovering and punishing corruption. Pope Francis got in on the act last week, visiting a notoriously lawless Naples neighbourhood and urging its residents to summon the courage to “clean up the city and clean up society, so that there is no longer that stink of corruption”.

    In principle, the political and legal assault on corruption ought to strengthen Europe in its unwanted but increasingly inescapable confrontation with Russia. For corruption scandals that discredit European politics are a gift to propagandists in Moscow, who scoff at the supposed degeneracy of Europe’s political systems and ethical values.

    Europe’s crackdown on corruption, though still patchy, amounts to a recognition that — in an age of burst property bubbles, failed banks and government-imposed austerity — society is losing its patience with misbehaviour on the part of its rulers. For mainstream politicians, a failure to tackle corruption, or to be seen as trying to tackle it, risks driving voters into the camps of rightwing and leftwing populist parties.

    From Ireland to Cyprus, politicians who cheat the public go down badly with Europeans afflicted by unemployment, debt and squeezed or falling living standards. In countries with political systems penetrated by clientelism, the public’s lower tolerance for corruption may partly reflect the fact that, in hard economic times, political parties have less largesse to distribute to voters in jobs and perks.

    Disgust with corruption is a key factor in the rise of Podemos, a radical leftist party which tops some Spanish opinion polls, threatening an upset in the national election due by the year’s end. Pablo Ruz, a high court judge who has spent years delving into secret funds alleged to have been under the PP’s control, said in a report this month that the party “made use of various forms of financing outside the legal economic framework” for at least 18 years.

    Corruption was the big issue that propelled Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement to a startling 25 per cent share of the vote in Italy’s 2013 election. A classic protest party rather than one ambitious to exercise power itself, the Five-Star Movement has faded somewhat since Matteo Renzi became prime minister a year ago — arguably, because his anti-corruption rhetoric sounds less empty than that of earlier generations of Italian politicians.

    His government has boosted the powers of Anac, the anti-corruption agency led by Raffaele Cantone, a former magistrate. Standards of integrity are higher in Mr Renzi’s government, too. Maurizio Lupi resigned as transport minister last week, even though he is not under investigation in the public works scandal.

    The biggest transformation has occurred in Romania, where Darius Valcov resigned this month as finance minister, becoming the nation’s highest-level sitting politician to be investigated for corruption. A crackdown started in earnest last year, with over 1,100 convicted of graft, and has gathered pace since the election in November of Klaus Iohannis as Romania’s president.

    All over Europe, far more needs to be done. But the economic crisis, the emergence of anti-establishment politics and the contest with Russia are raising awareness that corruption is, over time, a danger to the rule of law and democracy itself.