Monday, 14 December 2009

EU citizens suspect corruption in EU institutions, Wenig escapes sanctions

Remarkably under-reported: an opinion poll published by Eurobarometer last week revealed that a growing share of European citizens considers corruption to be a serious problem. No less than 83% of the respondents believe that “there is corruption in national institutions” (ranging from 35% in Denmark to 98% in Greece). “The close links between business and politics is the most common cause Europeans give for corruption, followed by insufficient action by governments to prevent corruption”, Eurobarometer reports. 42% of respondents agree that “there are too close links between business and politics”.

The survey reveals that the image of the EU institutions is very grim and has further deteriorated in the last two years. According to the poll, a shocking 76% of EU citizens agree “there is corruption within the institutions of the European Union”, up from 66% in 2007. Respondents in Greece, Slovenia, Sweden (all 85%) and Germany (84%) most often share these concerns, those in Poland and Romania least often (both ‘only’ 58%). Strangely, this seems to be the only question that was asked about the EU institutions, the rest of the survey only deals with opinions about corruption on the national level. This is a missed opportunity, but the figures are sufficiently extreme to merit a strong political response. The burning question is: what will Barroso’s new Commission team do to secure the highest possible standards in preventing corruption and conflicts of interests in the EU institutions?

Over the last few months Brussels Sunshine has reported numerous cases showing that the Commission does not exactly have its house in order yet when it comes to avoiding conflicts of interest: a Trade Commissioner who personally signs the decision to lift import tariffs for a giant corporation owned by a close friend, ex-Commissioners working as highly-paid lobbyists, a lobbyist for Microsoft and Pfizer being the Special Adviser of the EU’s Consumer Commissioner, just to mention a few examples.

The need for change was underlined very clearly when earlier this month, the European Voice reported the bizarre news that former Commission official Fritz-Harald Wenig was found guilty, but will not suffer any consequences for highly unethical behaviour. Mr. Wenig, who has meanwhile retired, had according to the Sunday Times, offered to leak commercially sensitive information about trade negotiations in return for financial rewards. The European Voice now reports that the EU’s Civil Service Tribunal “found that Wenig had failed to comply with the Commission code of conduct”, but at the same time overturned his suspension “due to procedural errors”. The reason: the suspension decision was “taken only by Commissioner Kallas, rather than by the full College of Commissioners.”

According to the judgement of the Tribunal, the College had given Kallas the mandate to deal with the Wenig case on 10 September, but – contrary to the EC’s internal rules – this decision was only published on the EC intranet and not in the appropriate print publication. That formal error made Wenig win the case! The Commission may have wanted to act firmly in this case but had to fall back upon improvisation.

After the Tribunal’s verdict, the Commission has to repay Wenig the €6,000 that was deducted from his salary during the six month suspension period. The fact that Wenig was found guilty of violating the Commission’s internal rules, but suffers no consequences, raises major questions about the Commission’s ability to handle the corruption cases that so many Europeans worry about.

The Barroso II Commission clearly has its work cut out for itself!

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