For those of us who support liberal democracy and the core values upon which the European Union was founded, there’s some degree of delight in watching the downfall of Austria’s far-right former vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache. The now infamous video of his booze-fueled self-destruction is indeed devastating – for the man, but perhaps also for the broader political coalition he helps define.
On the video, Strache and another Austrian politician are drinking, smoking and chatting with a Russian woman, purportedly the niece of a billionaire oligarch. They discuss a trade: she will make politically motivated investments, including into a media company that would become an outlet for Strache’s party, in exchange for lucrative public contracts. It's classic corruption: a politician offering to use their power and position to illegally funnel public funds to someone in exchange for cash and other benefits.
The video has ended Strache’s political career – at least for now – and caused the government to collapse, with new elections expected in September. But what will it bring for Strache’s brand of politics? It is difficult for a politician to maintain a position of defending traditional family values and culture when that politician is, at the same time, stealing from the very people he or she purports to protect. People do tend to notice after a while. Viral videos help.
A 'super group' of corruption
Strache’s Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) is part of a nascent alliance of anti-values parties from across the continent. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is the main force behind the movement and hopes to use it to create a “super group” of anti-values parties in the next European Parliament. Strache, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Marine Le Pen have all been quite open about their enthusiasm for the group. And all of them are dogged by allegations of corruption.
Viktor Orban’s grip on Hungary is firm. His anti-immigrant rhetoric, ably disseminated by state-controlled media outlets and on shamelessly anti-Semitic billboards, resonates with a population that he’s spent the last decade conditioning to be afraid of “anti-Hungarian” forces. But corruption could be his Achilles heel, and there are growing signs that Hungarians are becoming conscious of his graft.
The Orban government put a stop to the country’s golden visa program in large part because of widely held suspicion that it was little more than a get-rich-quick scheme for Orban's friends. And more recently, some 470,000 people have signed a petition calling on Orban’s government to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), the EU’s new anti-corruption watchdog for EU funding. Orban has so far resisted such pressure, claiming that the office would interfere too much in domestic issues.
The petition came after corruption allegations against Orban stepped up. In September of last year, European Commission inspectors noticed massive irregularities in EU-funded projects in Hungary, noting suspicious activity in the public procurement process for billions in EU funds. The evidence of corruption was so significant that the Commission took the extraordinary step of threatening to withhold nearly two billion euros in additional EU money for the country.
And Orban’s situation is made worse by the absurdity of his corruption. His son-in-law, Stephen Tiborcz, is now one of the wealthiest people in Hungary, with an estimated fortune in excess of 100 million euros. Much of it is believed to have been gained through corruption. He and his friends, with the help of Orban’s office, rigged the public procurement procedure for EU development funds for new streetlights. It is only thanks to some of the few remaining independent journalists in the country that we know the true extent of corruption in this case.
Another populist darling is Matteo Salvini, the main force behind the aforementioned “super group” in the next European Parliament. According to investigative journalists in Italy, Salvini struck a deal with Russia to get funding ahead of last year’s Italian election, though it is believed the agreement ultimately collapsed. The deal involved Russian representatives close to Vladimir Putin selling 3 million tons of diesel fuel to an Italian oil company, with the profits being diverted to Salvini’s party, the League.
And corruption allegations flared up again in recent weeks, after an investigation was opened into one of Salvini’s top advisors, who is accused of accepting a 30,000-euro bribe in exchange for supporting certain energy policies. Salvini defended his advisor and refused to dismiss him, though the advisor was recently forced out despite this.
Russia is also keen to trade cash for influence and other benefits in France. And Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party have been receptive. Her party borrowed more than 9 million euros from Russian banks to fund their campaign during the last French election, after French banks refused the loans. There is also the small matter of her selling her foreign policy positions. Leaked texts and emails from 2015 showed discussions of Russian financial support to Le Pen’s party in exchange for its support of Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Not all of Le Pen's corruption is done with the help of Russia. In 2017, the European Parliament accused her of misspending five million euros, much of which went to assistants of Le Pen's party who were not working for MEPs but instead for her national party back in France – a gross misuse of European taxpayers' money. In 2018, an EU court agreed that she had misspent the money, ordering her to payback some 300,000 euros. And later in 2018, an official within her own party admitted that she was facing a fresh investigation in France for embezzling public funds.
A widespread problem
Although all of the most notable far-right parties are enmeshed in corruption allegations, it’s a problem that is certainly not endemic to the far right. The ALDE political group in the European Parliament is largely a collection of centrist, pro-values parties. But it is also the home of ANO, the ruling party of the Czech Republic headed by Andrej Babiš, the country’s prime minister.
Babiš is accused of funneling millions of euros in EU development funds to his personal company, Agrofert, an agricultural and chemicals conglomerate that has made Babiš a billionaire. This case led to the European Parliament passing a resolution against him that called for the suspension of all EU payments to his business.
The left-leaning Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group has grifters of its own – some pretty spectacular ones, in fact. It’s home to Romania’s PSD party, which has all but added corruption as an official plank of the party’s platform. Many of its upper-level politicians, including the leader of the party, Liviu Dragnea, have been investigated for corruption. Many cases, Dragnea’s included, have ended in convictions. In the last year, the government has been working to pass a law that would expunge those convictions, giving amnesty to corrupt politicians and allowing them to once again run for high office.
The S&D group is also the home of Slovakia’s SMER party. The murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak in February 2018 set off a wave of protests and hardened the perception among voters that SMER is deeply corrupt. At the time of his murder, Kuciak had been investigating links between the government and the Italian mafia. The government's muddled and lethargic investigation into the murder did nothing to allay voters' concerns. Three weeks from now, anti-corruption lawyer Zuzana Čaputová will become the prime minister, after storming to an unexpected election victory on the promise of making the country less corrupt.
Fresh elections could mean fresh faces
It can be tempting to see truth in the quip, made by Henry Kissinger, that “corrupt politicians make the other 10 percent look bad.” There is overwhelming evidence that some of Europe’s most notable and popular politicians and their underlings are deeply corrupt. And this is a problem. Yes, representatives should share their constituents’ values, and it should bother voters when they don’t. But corruption isn’t just a moral issue. It takes money out of our GDPs, with estimates putting the financial cost of corruption in the EU at up to 950 billion euros per year. It stunts business growth, research, the development of new infrastructure and technologies. Corruption is holding us back, preventing us from enjoying wealthier, safer and more advanced societies.
But although corruption seems widespread across the continent, and across the European Parliament, its breadth is far greater than its depth. Most MEPs, and their national parties more generally, are not neck-high in corruption and are not shy to take strong positions against it. Europe would be a far better place if all of our politicians had this courage, and were this principled. And, ultimately, it is up to us, the voters, whether this is the case or not.
It's certainly something to think about on your way to the polling station.