The latest Corruption Perceptions index by Transparency International (TI) brings into question the description of the European Union's role, often told in dialectic terms, of the transformation of Eastern Europe from a web of Soviet satellites to European states.
Whilst levels of perceived corruption in Eastern Europe have remained steady compared with three years ago, and admittedly in some cases improved for those states belonging to the EU, they have also plummeted in those “Western” countries most affected by the euro crisis. The public narrative of corruption would do well then, to shift from a primary reliance on historical cultural explanations embedded in the European Union, and focus more on the particular socio-economic conditions at hand.
The comparative view
The headlines on this year's World Anti-Corruption Day (December 9th 2012) focused almost exclusively on the plight of Italy and Greece. The TI's report, based on averaging a range of independent institutional assessments of transparency and accountability, and therefore a “perception” of corruption, rather than a quantitative assessment of this opaque area found Greece to be languishing globally in 92nd place. Greece was not only at the bottom of Western and Central Europe's rankings but well below a number of post-Soviet states, including Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, for levels of its political and economic corruption.
In sharp contrast, a number of post-Soviet states in Europe are slowly, steadily progressing in terms of holding their institutions accountable. Whilst notably behind traditional Western and Nordic countries, Hungary and Poland both improved their rankings, receiving over 50 out of 100 points from across 10 institutional surveys each. Slovenia and Estonia also featured in the top 20 of European countries too.
This analysis does not forget that there are notable criticisms to be levelled at Hungary in particular, most notably Victor Orban's assault on the independence of the Hungarian media, the central bank and judiciary independence, but suggests that a comparative view leads to the conclusion that behind the headlines there are moderate improvements to be noted in the conduct of the Eastern European public sphere.
Inverted trend of corruption
The general trend for 2012 suggests development far removed from a correlation between ascendency to the EU and the strengthening of oversight in member states. Instead, domestic socio-economic changes, financial turmoil, systemic eurozone problems and demographic upheaval are the prevailing features for deeper levels of corruption. The tautology is unclear, and weather weaker economic conditions encourage weakened, more corrupt institutions, or are a composite part of a wider economic problem remain open.
Looking back to 2009, over a generation after Greece first joined the joined the European Union, the TI deduced that “joining the EU does not automatically translate into a reduction in corruption. Immediate and sustained efforts are required…”. A further three years on and the situation is in free-fall. The logic of an EU leading member on a steady path to Nordic levels of transparency and stability is sharply undone.
Yet, the language of corruption has remained largely unchanged from the optimistic days of the 1990s, when European values first began to “normalise” in the East. Discussions on transparency seem condemned to be linked to a nation's historic past and not their economic, political and recent institutional make up. Take a recent New York Times article, written from Bucharest in October 2012, which describes that “Romania, in particular, has struggled to overcome the aftermath of the ruthless, corrupt dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu” as an analysis for the 4,700 people who have gone to trial on corruption charges across all levels of the public sector, from 15 parliament ministers to over 500 police officers in the last six years.
Whilst the tone of these often political trials remains a disturbing modus operandi of communist times, it does little to explain why Romania remains bottom of the TI EU member state charts. Fives years of EU membership and Romania remains significantly behind Georgia in terms of corruption, despite the latter separation from European “normality”.
Politics of self perception
It cannot be doubted that the European Union has actively attempted to instil levels of accountability across Europe. This has taken the form of not only the implementation of the Stockholm Programme from 2010, but also in the wide distribution of cohesion funds to Eastern Europe, given with an implicit expectation of economic transparency.
Even more recently, the EU has actively pressed for legal action against Hungary for the aforementioned pressures on the public sector. Yet the impact of these measures has been uneven and resulted in a complicated form of perceptions, both on where corruption lies and who has the responsibility to deal with it.
The latest Euro-barometer data available, 2009's “attitudes of Europeans towards corruption”, shows that the self perceptions of European citizens in newer Eastern European member states were more likely to align to the belief that corruption was a major problem in their own country, and were less likely to agree that corruption is a problem within EU institutions (64 per cent vs. 79 per cent) in comparison to older members.
Yet perceived credibility did not lead to a perceived responsibility to actively deal with that corruption. In the same survey, when asked whose responsibility it was to prevent and tackle corruption, the majority of new states fell under the European average (24 per cent) in favouring the European Union institutions.
This was felt most strongly in Poland, where only 11 per cent thought that the EU were the arbiters of accountability, closely followed by Hungary, where 15 per cent were in favour. Despite strong questions remaining over the ability of each state to handle the issue, citizens across the new member states viewed it both as a domestic problem and a domestic responsibility to tackle public sector corruption.
These statistics open up two serious questions on how the EU is viewed as an organisation of European accountability. Firstly, an assessment of the current state of affairs reveals that newer members are successfully building on recent developments, whilst eurozone members have become mired in new scandals.
Meanwhile, the view of citizens, those who domestic institutions are ultimately accountable, overwhelmingly view these problems as domestic, and to be resolved at a domestic level, something they are in the process to doing. In both cases the EU has demonstrated an inability to assert itself as the perceived moral arbiter of accountability.
This is not to say that the EU has failed at helping the liberalisation of nations, but that it would be better to stop assessing the development of accountability in Eastern Europe through the prism of the past and rather locate the problems, and the solutions, in the domestic socio-economic factors and political will of the current institutions.
Mathew Shearman is a London based politics editor of the transnational life magazine Europe and Me. For more, follow him at @shearmanm