Corruption levels remain concerning in a number of countries. This is particularly disturbing at a time when health and social security systems are struggling to support our populations. During a pandemic, taxes wasted through corruption translate into unnecessary deaths and hardships like not being able to pay the rent or feed one’s children.
Governments should have stepped up their efforts to counter corruption and ensure that it does not undermine responses to Covid-19. Instead, many have hindered freedom of information, allowed justice systems to collapse and weakened oversight mechanisms. And this has allowed corrupt politicians and businesses to exploit the pandemic to acquire more wealth for them and their friends.
In some extreme cases, this is part of an overall strategy by governments with authoritarian tendencies to dismantle checks and balances and cement their grip on power. These governments actually exploited the pandemic to accelerate their crack-down on democratic principles. In Hungary, a recent report exposed how business circles close to Prime Minister Orbán were granted large sums of money without following normal procurement procedures during the epidemic. The government has gone so far as to amend the constitution to make it easier to hide the misuse of public funds.In Poland, the judiciary can no longer be relied on to investigate and prosecute corruption cases. This is because of the ruling party’s efforts to dismantle judicial independence and intimidate hold-out judges with the so-called muzzle law. The government is also pushing its candidate to take over the position of Commissioner for Human Rights. This is one of the country’s last remaining independent watchdogs.
Trouble all round
But it is not only those extreme cases that should worry us, according to Liberties’ new report ‘EU 2020: DEMANDING ON DEMOCRACY’, published last week. Some countries made half-hearted efforts to improve their anti-corruption systems, such as the Czech Republic and Italy. But in general, governments across the EU are failing their citizens in their fight against corruption by weakening the institutions and standards that protect the rule of law.
Several EU countries took measures that made it more difficult to monitor public spending. In Romania, the authorities suspended or severely delayed responses to freedom of information requests. In Spain, the government hindered the timely flow of information and data about its ability to manage the pandemic. The authorities in France hampered with procedural delays and other obstacles participation of civil society organisations in anti-corruption mechanisms.
Weak checks to balance executive powers
In several EU countries, public watchdog bodies, particularly National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), have also had difficulties protecting citizens’ rights. For example, in Bulgaria, Croatia and the Czech Republic, the NHRI suffers from a lack of independence and effectiveness.
Croatia’s Commission for the Prevention of Conflict of Interest has also come under pressure and may be dissolved after it started investigations into dubious affairs of the ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union and Prime Minister Andrej Plenković – whose government has been riddled by corruption scandals.Independent, well-resourced courts are essential to keep a check on the legality of public spending. But the courts in many countries have suffered during the pandemic. For example, in Bulgaria. The procedure to appoint judges and prosecutors is secretive and does not ensure their full independence. In addition, new rules introduced to monitor and investigate the work of prosecutors may compromise their independence. Higher court fees and lengthy legal proceedings are also making the courts harder to access. Public trust in the judiciary had already dropped with the controversial appointment of a new prosecutor general in October 2019. Coupled with a corruption crisis, this has led to some of the country’s longest anti-government protests.
Public trust in the judiciary was also damaged in Ireland, when a newly appointed Supreme Court Judge refused to resign despite violating public health guidelines in the “golf-gate” scandal.
These worrying trends overshadow the possible progress that may come from the push for the digitalization or from reforms proposed in countries like the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia to improve the independence and transparency of justice systems.
About the report
Transparency and public interest information, oversight of the executive and a strong judiciary are essential components of what we would call a strong rule of law system. These are crucial, to make sure that our leaders allocate public spending in the best way possible to support citizens through the pandemic.
Liberties’ new report ‘EU 2020: DEMANDING ON DEMOCRACY’ exposes harmful practices affecting the rule of law across 14 EU countries. It is the most in depth exercise of this kind by an NGO network covering developments in 2020. The report was prepared by Liberties together with its member and partner organisations, to feed this year’s consultation by the European Commission on the state of the rule of law in the EU.
Previously on Liberties