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Speech - Tackling corruption in the EU: it is time for action

European Commission - SPEECH/14/191   06/03/2014

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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Cecilia Malmström

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs

Tackling corruption in the EU: it is time for action

Transparency International (TI) conference on EU Anti-Corruption Report

Brussels, 6 March 2014

Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

It is a pleasure to be here today to talk about the EU anti-corruption report and discuss how we can join efforts to tackle corruption.

Since I took office four years ago, I have worked hard to make corruption a priority in the work of the Commission. One only needs to ask a few simple questions to understand why.

Why is it that in some places, a father will have to pay twice just to have his sick child examined by medics? Why is it that in other places, elected officials can line their pockets with impunity at the expense of legitimate businesses? Why is it that some politicians who cheat in public office can delay their trials until they can no longer be brought to justice? Why should ordinary citizens suffer because the decision to build a factory or waste plant nearby was taken based on bribes?

In all these ways and more, corruption in the EU has a real and tangible impact on our citizens.

At the same time, it undermines trust in public institutions and in democracy – crucial institutions and values protected by the Treaty.

Corruption is also extremely costly. By discouraging investment, by harming fair competition, and by weakening legitimate business to the advantage of criminal groups corruption costs the EU some 120 billion Euros every year – the equivalent of the whole EU budget!

In other words, the need to act against corruption – and to act now - is clear. I believe everyone here today can agree to that.

It is therefore encouraging to see such a wide range of familiar faces in the audience and amongst my fellow speakers. There is a great deal of expertise in the room today. This bodes well for our efforts to work together to address the challenges posed by corruption.

I am particularly pleased to see the Greek Presidency of the Council represented among us on this occasion. We count on partnership with the Presidency and all EU governments to prioritise efforts to prevent and fight corruption. As the EU Anti-corruption report recognises, Member States have already taken many steps to combat corruption, but a lot of work lies ahead.

Also the European Parliament has called for greater EU engagement in the fight against corruption for a number of years, and it has given its full support to the Commission's efforts.

Of course, corruption reaches far and wide in our societies, so engaging with the private sector and civil society is also really important. I welcome the investment made by Transparency International to organise this conference. Transparency International is an important and valuable partner to us. I look forward to hearing what Hendrick Bourgeois, as the voice of industry has to say today.

Let me now turn to what we have done, in the report, and end with a few words about the key question: what's next?

I will not go through the report in detail – it is, after all, over 350 pages long. But it sends a very clear message. Corruption affects all EU Member States. Some Member States have done a lot - especially in recent years - to prevent and fight corruption, but it is not enough. We, all of us, need to do more to tackle corruption in the EU and its Member States. And the time to act is now, as Europe begins to emerge from the economic crisis.

Because over three quarters of Europeans feel that corruption is a widespread problem. Because most people think this problem is getting worse not better. Because one in four people say corruption affects their lives on a daily basis.

And it's not just the general public who has that feeling. The way to succeed in business must be by working hard, getting on, and being competitive. Success cannot be the product of good political connections – but at present, almost half of European businesspeople which the Commission asked said that political patronage is still the best way to succeed. So for honest people working hard in legitimate businesses, we need to do more.

This is why the report contains detailed suggestions for how to better counter corruption in every country in the EU. For each Member State, the report set out a very concrete agenda of issues to follow up and improve on.

Those suggestions build on several years of work within the Commission, drawing on input from experts and academia as well as contacts with Member State experts.

There are too many suggestions for me to list them all today. But to give a broad idea, we call for more transparency in the funding of political parties and election campaigns. We call for stronger and clearer rules on conflicts of interest, including disclosure of public official’s assets, and revolving door policies.

We call on Member States to ensure that their anti-corruption agencies, courts, prosecution services, and law enforcement bodies are independent and effective.

We urge Member States to improve controls within public authorities, and to strengthen the protection of whistle blowers.

We ask for more efforts to address the risk of foreign bribery in certain industries, including defence.

We pay particular attention in the report to public procurement, since public authorities spend around one fifth of EU GDP every year on goods, works and services. We see that public procurement is prone to corruption, owing to weak control mechanisms and risk management. In fact, we dedicate a special chapter of the report to this theme.

What we now need to see is change happening. We need Member States, civil society, businesses and other key players to act, to take the first steps in implementing these suggestions.

The anti-corruption report is a first. It is a signal that the EU is listening to its citizens and addressing the challenges of corruption. We need to see stronger guarantees of integrity amongst public officials, more transparency of public expenditure, and greater efforts to protect the legitimate economy in the EU. The report is a step towards these goals. Tackling corruption sends out the right signal; the EU is open for business, the EU is the right place to invest.

I have highlighted difficulties we are facing in this area. But it is not all bad news. Although we have a long way to go, many countries have passed laws and put in place strategies to counter corruption. New institutions have been set up, political commitments have been made. The focus on corruption has increased in recent years, both in media and in public opinion as public budgets have come under pressure in the wake of the crisis.

The Report recognises and explains this progress, and highlights specific areas of good practice. We hope that Member States will take inspiration from their partners in looking for new, effective ways of tackling their problems.

Every day since the publication of this report, my officials have been inundated with messages of encouragement and support. Governments have welcomed the report, and several have already made commitments to follow up on our recommendations. The Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament reacted very positively, and most media have welcomed the report warmly.

Individual parliamentarians, business representatives, civil society organisations and citizens have also written to my office by the hundreds, many of them urging the EU to do more against corruption. We have the support here to do more.

But amongst the praise, there has also been some criticism; the report was delayed, it shies away from strong criticism, it repeats existing recommendations from international organisations, and it fails to address corruption within the EU’s own Institutions.

But these criticisms miss the point – this is a first report, something to build on and use as a catalyst for more EU action.

We have deliberately taken the time to ensure that the report is accurate and properly researched; it is after all the first time anyone has ever attempted an overview of how corruption is handled across in all 28 Member States at the same time. We delivered it just one month later than we announced in 2011.

We deliberately draw on, and thereby reinforce, the recommendations made by the Council of Europe, the OECD, and the UN, and we do add our own tailor-made suggestions on a country-by-country basis.

I also do not agree that the report holds back, or shies away from uncomfortable truths – it highlights a wide range of problems that we need to deal with, some of which go to the heart of national political systems. It does respect the presumption of innocence and therefore avoids naming individuals who have not been finally convicted of any crime.

And yes, it is regrettable that the report does not contain a chapter on corruption within the EU institutions. But we realised that it would be impossible to evaluate our own efforts in a credible and objective manner. For this reason, we look forward to the outcome this spring of TI's assessment of the transparency, integrity and accountability of EU institutions. This analysis, along with input from GRECO and others, will feed into future EU Anti-Corruption Reports. And I look forward to the day when GRECO itself can assess the EU institutions.

We are working to move forward on EU participation in GRECO, which will lead eventually to the external evaluation of EU institutions. This is something to aim at for the next report.

Let me conclude by saying that our Report is just a first step. It is the first time we have a complete overview of the situation in all Member States, and a comprehensive set of suggestions on how to move forward.

The report provides everyone – policy makers, citizens, journalists and practitioners – means to advance anti-corruption policies in each of our countries. I hope this conference will help build the genuine political will which is needed, more than anything, to tackle corruption more effectively.

The Commission will support Member States who are willing to take on its suggestions however they can. We will develop workshops and other events to bring practitioners together to exchange methods for tacking corruption and for addressing the specific suggestions of the EU Anti-Corruption Report.

The Commission will also continue to integrate anti-corruption practices into other policy areas, including cohesion policy, public procurement, enlargement and development aid. We will continue to address corruption issues through the European Semester cycle of economic policy coordination, wherever necessary. We will also look at the possible need, in the medium term, for new EU legislation to address corruption.

As we consider what the future holds in the area of home affairs, I will certainly push to make anti-corruption a long-term priority. I will urge the Council to take on this challenge – the Greek Presidency has overseen a promising start, and I expect the forthcoming Italian Presidency to take on the baton eagerly.

We have two years until the next EU Anti-Corruption Report. There is a lot to do before then. But starting now, we need to develop the tools and act on the recommendations that will make a real difference.

Working together, we can find real and tangible results. But the time to start is not next year or next month. It's now.

I look forward to hearing your views and discovering new opportunities for working together to tackle corruption in the EU.

Thank you

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