Liberties has published its fourth annual report on the state of the rule of law in the European Union. Liberties’ report, compiled by 45 member and partner organizations, gives detailed analyses on the health of democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law in 18 EU member states.
The Liberties Rule of Law Report 2023 is a shadow report ahead of the European Commission’s annual rule of law audit slated to be released in July. It is also an annual check-up, showing trends in the trajectory of key issues that underpin rule of law and democracy, like the justice system, checks and balances, free media, civic space and corruption.
Corruption fight stagnates
The report lays bare the manifold threats facing democracy in Europe. But of all the areas looked at by our members and partners, in only one was not a single country fairing worse than it had in 2021: corruption. The majority of organizations saw no change, good or bad, to the anti-corruption framework existing in their country.
While we can be happy that no member state slid backward in its fight against corruption, only one reported positive developments: Hungary, surprisingly enough. And no regression is not, in fact, something to celebrate. This year’s report makes clear that the rules and mechanisms to stop corruption are simply too weak in too many countries.
That’s so worrisome because rooting out corruption is essential to maintain healthy democracies. Without robust anti-corruption measures, corrupt politicians and their business allies can take public funds for themselves. This means less money for the things we need, like well-funded schools and hospitals or adequate public transport. And corruption can also influence what we see or read from the media, and which interests end up influencing the lawmaking process.
Familiar problems persist
Hungary actually improved its anti-corruption framework compared to 2021. Of course, when there’s nowhere to go but up, it’s not exactly laudable. And indeed, we still see deep corruption in Hungary. The improvement came in the form of a package of anti-corruption laws the government passed in late 2022 in order to secure EU COVID recovery funds. As our Hungarian member, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), put it, the new regulations have been passed “to reach an agreement with the European Commission” and not to actually stop corruption.
HCLU considers the new laws to be at best insufficient, and quite likely meaningless. They note that passing anti-corruption laws in a country with systemic corruption and without an independent justice system or legal guarantees “is like dressing a reoffending criminal in new clothes and expecting him to become a law-abiding citizen.” While the act of proffering new (though likely toothless) anti-corruption legislation is enough to show positive movement from Hungary, it’s clear that the one “bright spot” in our overview of countries’ anti-corruption framework is anything but.
There have been other instances of progress, smaller in scale than Hungary’s but more likely to effect positive change. Italy adopted a new anti-corruption plan, although it has still made no progress reining in lobbying corruption or transposing the EU Whistleblower Directive. The Czech Republic did announce plans to create a new register of lobbyists to keep track of influence over lawmaking, although it too has done nothing to protect whistleblowers, while individual corruption cases involving high-profile people – including the outgoing president, Milos Zeman, and the former prime minister, Andrej Babis – continue to blight the country’s reputation.
Other countries continue to deal with familiar problems, making little or no progress in recent years. This is especially evident in government tenders and contracts: in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, it remains extremely difficult for the public to find out which businesses the government decides to give contracts to; in France and Croatia, the government continues to award contracts to business allies. There is also systemic underfunding of anti-corruption mechanisms – this is a persistent problem in Belgium and Ireland.
Corruption’s link to other urgent issues
Perhaps the most widespread deficiency among studied countries is the continued lack of protection given to whistleblowers, who can be essential bulwarks against corruption. The Netherlands and Croatia have failed to give whistleblowers the level of protection that the EU directive requires, while Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Slovakia and Spain have made no legislative progress whatsoever to protect whistleblowers.
The need for whistleblower protection demonstrates the extent to which corruption reaches over into other areas, like the right to information or freedom of expression. By properly protecting whistleblowers’ rights to freely report wrongdoing, and the right for this to be public information, we empower them to report corrupt acts and other wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.
It is also evident in SLAPPs – strategic lawsuits against public participation. These abusive lawsuits are most often launched by powerful individuals or businesses against investigative journalists or other watchdogs in an attempt to silence them and stop their work. This allows corruption to remain hidden, depriving the public of important information and causing a chilling effect on journalists and civil society actors that would otherwise raise the alarm. SLAPPs remain a pressing issue across the EU, as our members and partner organizations report in Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden.
And it is telling that instead of supporting watchdogs in their effort to unveil corruption and wrongdoings, governments engage instead in smear campaigns to discredit them. In Italy, for example, our member and partner organizations report that verbal attacks against civil society by members of the government, including in connection with the Qatargate scandal, raise fears of the beginning of a new phase of criminalization and defamation of civil society, undermining its credibility in the public eye. In Slovenia and Sweden, some politicians lead smear campaigns against civil society actors, including by spreading misinformation, without facing any consequences.
More must be done to stamp out corruption at all levels
Although the anti-corruption framework has not deteriorated in any member state reviewed in the Liberties Rule of Law Report 2023, we have no reason to celebrate. On the whole, almost no country delivered substantive positive change in this area. The one that did, Hungary, did so simply to secure EU funding, and we have every reason to doubt that the new regulations will have any value in practice. We urge the European Commission to be firm in its insistence that member states do more to combat corruption. Robust anti-corruption legislation should be prioritized in all member states, as should the implementation of proper whistleblower protection laws and anti-SLAPP measures.
To be credible and exert pressure, the EU must also lead by example. The shocking revelations of the Qatargate corruption scandal rocking the European Parliament risk damaging the credibility and moral standing of the EU, which it needs to win public support for protecting the rule of law. It is disheartening to see discussions on Qatargate being used to justify tightening the grip on NGOs – with well-intentioned efforts risking to end up accidentally helping those who try to silence watchdogs and progressives, instead of fighting and preventing bribery and corruption. The EU must address the issue upfront, by launching an independent inquiry at the level of all institutions, ensure accountability of those involved and strengthen mechanisms to prevent similar practices in the future – as civil society has long called for.
Corruption is not simply money disappearing into the pockets of politicians and their friends. It’s also our understaffed hospitals, our underfunded schools, our crumbling roads. Without adequate anti-corruption measures, it is simply not possible for us to build the strong, healthy and free democratic societies we want.
Country reports 2023
The Report presents findings from 18 EU Member States by 45 human rights organizations, namely:
- League of Human Rights (Belgium),
- Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (Bulgaria),
- Centre for Peace Studies (Croatia),
- League of Human Rights, Glopolis (Czech Republic),
- Human Rights Center (Estonia),
- Vox Public (France),
- the Society for Civil Rights, FragDenStaat, LobbyControl (Germany),
- the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Hungary),
- the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Trinity College Dublin School of Law, The Immigrant Council of Ireland, Inclusion Ireland, Intersex Ireland, Community Law and Mediation, Justice for Shane, Mercy Law Resource Centre, Irish Penal Reform Trust, The National Union of Journalists, Age Action Ireland, The Irish Network Against Racism, Outhouse, Irish Traveller Movement, Pavee Point, FLAC-Free Legal Advice Centres, Mental Health Reform (Ireland),
- Antigone Association, Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD), A Buon Diritto Onlus, Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration or ASGI,Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT) (Italy),
- Human Rights Monitoring Institute (Lithuania),
- Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Free Press Unlimited, Transparency International Nederlands (Netherlands),
- the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland),
- Apador-CH (Romania),
- Via Iuris (Slovakia),
- Peace Institute (Slovenia),
- Rights International Spain (Spain),
- Civil Rights Defenders, International Commission of Jurists (Sweden).
The making of this Report was funded by the European Union.