“The vaccination process in Portugal went well because we came together. After a somewhat troubled start, we managed to prevent anyone from skipping the breadline,” said Vice-Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, (bumping fists above), who led the successful COVID-19 Task Force.
Despite widely held beliefs to the contrary, corruption is a problem in the European Union, while trust in government is low, according to Transparency International. Portugal does have an anti-corruption strategy, although it has been described as unambitious.
In the 27 European Union member states, bribery rates may be low, but many people rely on personal connections to obtain services, while governments seem to make little progress against various forms of corruption, reported Transparency International (TI) in Global Corruption Barometer, European Union 2021: Citizens’ Views and Experiences of Corruption. Digitalizing public services reduced corruption by limiting contact with officials.
Susana Coroado, president of Transparency International Portugal, commented on a 2022 TI global report in which Portugal occupied 32nd position tied with South Korea, with 62 points out of 100, below the European Union average of 64 points. The Corruption Perceptions Index was led by Denmark, New Zealand and Finland. At the bottom were Syria and Somalia with 13 points and South Sudan with 11.
“Good or bad, we have a strategy,” Coroado told Lusa in EURACTIV (January 26). “Obviously, despite the Government’s effort in creating this strategy, the impact has not been as strong, precisely because the strategy is not very ambitious and is not applicable to the sovereign bodies and, therefore, does not touch those that are the fundamental institutions for democracy and for the fight against corruption.
“Political corruption is left out, high positions are left out, and this does not convey an image of good leadership by example and, on the other hand, it ends up leaving out problematic areas when it comes to preventing corruption.”
Coroado argued that the focus should be on prevention, improving the management of conflicts of interest, risk detection and the availability of information by public institutions.
“Looking at what has been Portugal’s score over the last 10 years, (it) shows a worrying stagnation, even taking into consideration that corruption has been one of the biggest concerns of citizens,” said Coroado. “The public powers need to do more to respond to the concerns of citizens and the needs of the democratic regime.”
Indeed, the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index shows not just Portugal but the European Union to be in a state of stagnation. It gives examples of countries where the rule of law is in decline, such as Hungary and Poland, where the judiciary is controlled increasingly by the political powers and where the distribution of support funds has been done in a “non-transparent” way, benefiting companies and local authorities close to the government.
“The trend towards stagnation in Europe is very worrying” because we are witnessing “a trend towards retraction of the rule of law, retraction of democratic values and institutions,” said Coroado. “Corruption is one of the main factors in the corrosion of these institutions and the confidence of citizens.”
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, European Union 2021: Citizens’ Views and Experiences of Corruption included a 2020 survey targeted at the general population aged 18 and older. A minimum of 300 interviews in each of the 27 EU member states was conducted via computer-assisted telephone interviews using random digit dialing, reported TI. The results were an eye-opener:
Little progress against corruption
More than three-quarters of European Union respondents believed that there was stagnating or worsening corruption. Forty-four percent said that corruption levels in their country had not changed during the past 12 months, while 32 percent thought that there had been an increase. Only 16 percent thought there had been a decrease. In Cyprus, 65 percent thought that corruption increased along with Slovenia (51 percent) and Bulgaria (48 percent). While there was no country in which a majority thought that corruption was decreasing, the most positive results came from Slovakia, where 39 percent believed that there was a decline in corruption.
In Portugal, 41 percent believed that corruption had increased in the past 12 months.
Government corruption is a problem
When asked whether government corruption was a problem in their country, 62 percent said that they believed that it was a big problem. Less than 20 percent of people in Denmark and Finland thought that government corruption was a big problem, while more than 85 percent in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy and Spain viewed it as such.
In Portugal, 88 percent viewed government corruption as a big problem.
Governments not doing enough
A total of 43 percent of people in the EU believed that their governments were doing a good job at tackling corruption. However, 49 percent thought that their governments were doing a poor job. More than 60 percent of people in Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands thought that their governments were doing well in the fight against corruption. More than half of the people in Austria, Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and Sweden agreed that their governments were doing well.
By contrast, 80 percent of those in Cyprus believed that their government was not doing well in the fight against corruption. Two-thirds or more people in Bulgaria, Croatia and the Czech Republic thought the same.
In Portugal, 60 percent thought that the government was not doing well in its fight against corruption; 35 percent believed that the government was doing well, and 5 percent said that they did know.
Corruption in both the public and private sectors
Members of Parliament (MPs) were perceived as the most corrupt institution in the EU. A total of 28 percent said that most or all MPs were involved in corruption followed by prime ministers (23 percent) and private-sector actors, such as business executives (25 percent), and bankers (23 percent).
Bankers and business executives are viewed as the most corrupt by respondents in almost half of the EU countries. In Spain, for example, 42 percent thought that most or all bankers were corrupt.
In Portugal, 33 percent agreed that most or all bankers were corrupt.
In Germany, 35 percent believed that most or all business executives were corrupt.
In 13 EU nations, government institutions topped the corruption list. A total of 67 percent of Bulgarians and 51 percent of Romanians and Cypriots believed that most or all MPs were corrupt. The prime minister was seen as the most corrupt institution by more than one-third of people in Slovenia (39 percent) and the Czech Republic (34 percent).
A total of 22 percent of respondents believed that national government officials; 19 percent for local government officials, and 16 percent for non-governmental organizations.
Only 14 percent of the respondents believed that judges and magistrates were corrupt.
At the other end of the scale, the police were seen as the least corrupt institution by 11 percent of the respondents. On average, 83 percent thought that corruption in the police was limited to some officers at most.
Varying levels of trust in institutions
More than 60 percent of the respondents reported having a fair amount or a great deal of trust in government and other public institutions. Sixty-one percent felt the same about courts; 77 percent about police, and 56 percent said that they trusted the European Union.
In contrast, 50 percent had little or no trust in their national governments. However, there were large differences in terms of trust among the EU’s member states. Respondents in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden had high levels of trust across all institutions. In contrast, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland and Romania consistently showed the lowest level of trust in institutions.
Bribery Is Restricted to Handful of Countries
People were asked whether they had contact with six key public services in their country in the past 12 months: schools; public health care; identity documents; welfare benefits; police, and the courts. Then, they were asked whether they paid a bribe, gave a gift or did a favor in order to receive services.
Of those who had contact with at least one public service, only 7 percent paid a bribe to receive the service. However, there were important differences among countries: Denmark, Finland and Sweden registered the lowest bribery rates (less than 1 percent). The highest rates were in Romania (20 percent), Bulgaria (19 percent); Hungary (17 percent); Lithuania (17 percent), and Croatia (14 percent). While bribery was significantly more widespread in Eastern Europe, countries such as Belgium (10 percent), Austria (9 percent) and Greece (9 percent) showed above-average bribery rates, particularly when compared to most Western countries. The EU average was 7 percent.
In Portugal, 3 percent of the respondents said that they had paid a bribe.
Looking beyond bribery: the use of personal connections
Rules and regulations also can be bypassed by calling in a favor or relying on a friend or relative to help arrange services. This preferential treatment can prevent entire groups from accessing public services and skew the distribution of government services in favor of groups or individuals who are better connected in society and often are more privileged in other ways.
Of those who had contact with at least one of the six above-listed public services, 33 percent reported using connections. The highest use of personal connections was in the Czech Republic (57 percent); France (48 percent); Hungary (43 percent); Austria (40 percent), and Belgium (40 percent).
In Portugal, 48 percent of respondents reported using connections for a service.
The lowest use was reported in Estonia (12 percent); Slovenia (18 percent), and Sweden (19 percent).
Digitalization of 99 percent of public services helped Estonia experience low rates of bribery (2 percent) and use of personal connections (12 percent). The Transparency International report said:
“People apply for official documents, declare taxes and register with schools online. In very few areas does someone need to interact with a public official directly, which reduces opportunity for corruption. When such contact is necessary, communications are traced with a digital paper trail, which largely prevents officials misusing their power, as wrongdoing is more easily detected.”
People in the EU do not feel heard by their governments
About half of the respondents (48 percent) did not feel that governments took the needs and views of the people into account. Finland was the only country where most (62 percent) felt that their views were considered by the government when making decisions. In contrast, about two-thirds of respondents in Croatia (71 percent); Poland (68 percent); Bulgaria (66 percent), and France (65 percent) felt that their governments ignored their views.
In Portugal, 28 percent thought that the government took their views into account when making decisions.
In this type of corruption, sex is the currency of the bribe, and people are coerced into engaging in sexual acts in exchange for essential services, including health care and education. While 74 percent of the respondents believed that sextortion occurs at least occasionally, only 7 percent reported either having experienced it or knowing someone who has experienced it. The highest numbers were in Bulgaria (17 percent), Romania (13 percent) and Croatia (13 percent). The EU average was 7 percent.
In Portugal, 6 percent of the respondents had either experienced sextortion or knew someone who had experienced it.
Companies not playing by the rules
Fifty-two percent of the EU respondents doubted that government contracts were allocated in a competitive manner. Instead, they believed that the procurement of goods and services often were decided through bribes or personal connections. This view was shared by at least half of respondents in 16 of the 27 EU member states, including some of the biggest economies, such as France (50 percent) and Germany (57 percent). The highest rates were in Bulgaria (76 percent), Cyprus (75 percent) and Greece (74 percent).
Across the European Union, many respondents viewed big companies as failing to meet their fiscal responsibilities. The countries where respondents thought that corporate tax avoidance and evasion were routine were Greece (78 percent); Cyprus (76 percent); Italy (69 percent); Spain (68 percent), and Germany (66 percent).
In Portugal, 74 percent of respondents believed that big companies practiced tax avoidance and tax evasion.
In contrast, this view was least widely held in the Baltic and Nordic countries.
Undue influence on governments
In Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, two-thirds thought that businesses were controlling their governments. At the other end of the spectrum were Finland (28 percent); Denmark (25 percent), and Sweden (20 percent).
In Portugal, 63 percent of respondents believed that businesses were controlling the government.
People see themselves as part of the solution
A total of 64 percent of respondents thought that citizens could make a difference in the fight against corruption.
This attitude was especially true in Portugal, Italy and Ireland, where more than 80 percent of respondents believed that the ordinary citizen could make a difference.
In contrast were Austria (48 percent); Germany (47 percent); and Poland (23 percent).
Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents thought that it was unacceptable for governments to rely on corruption. Particularly low levels of tolerance towards corruption were found in Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
Romania was the only EU state, where a slim majority (53 percent) would accept some government corruption.
Fear of retaliation and lack of prosecution remain hurdles
The EU adopted the Whistleblower Protection Directive, which contained groundbreaking provisions, in 2019. Member states had until December 2021 to transpose the directive into national law but, by February 2021, few had done so.
Only 47 percent of respondents felt that they could safely report corruption, and 45 percent feared reprisals. The fear of consequences was highest in Cyprus (76 percent); Croatia (72 percent); Slovenia (66 percent), and Bulgaria (65 percent).
In Portugal, 58 percent of respondents feared reprisal for calling out corruption.
In contrast, more than two-thirds felt that it was safe to report corruption in Austria, Denmark, Finland and Germany.
Only 21 percent of respondents across the EU believed that governments systematically took appropriate action when corruption was exposed. About one in three respondents in Finland, Sweden and Greece believed that appropriate action was taken against corruption regularly. Less than 10 percent believed that was the case in Bulgaria, Latvia and Slovenia.
Who Is Transparency International?
Based in Berlin, Transparency International is a global anti-corruption association founded in 1993 by former World Bank employees, the former managing director of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, the former Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance in the office of the President of Kenya, and many others.
Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, which eventually hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.