European Council President Donald Tusk had some scathing words on corruption in his statement ahead of the G7 meeting in Germany at the weekend, worth quoting in full:
“Finally, I am really satisfied that some leaders want to use the summit to discuss corruption, including the recent FIFA scandal. We do not need empty declarations against corruption but we have to be ready to fight against those who were corrupted and those who corrupt. We need to fight corruption in its all dimensions, no matter how powerful the actors of these disgraceful practices are.”
Strong stuff, but what is the upshot of all this? The G7 Joint Leaders’ Declaration had some welcome language on preventing G7 countries from becoming a safe haven for dirty money, highlighting the importance of registers of the beneficial owners of companies and trusts, and also on getting those stolen assets back to their rightful owners. The EU has played its part here, enacting legislation last month that makes beneficial ownership registers quasi-public, but implementation is now a matter for the member states.
The European Council has no formal legislative role, but that doesn’t absolve Tusk from acting on his convictions. If he wants to avoid “empty declarations”, what could he do?
One thing could be done relatively swiftly and easily – he could host a special summit of heads of state on corruption in the EU. There is a precedent for this, when his predecessor Herman van Rompuy held a summit on combatting tax-avoidance and tax-evasion following a number of high-profile corporate tax-avoidance scandals. The situation with corruption in the EU is possibly even more dire, as detailed extensively in the European Commission’s anti-corruption report, the fact that five EU countries score lower than 50 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, and the continuing spate of political corruption scandals in Spain, Italy and elsewhere.
He need not worry about naming and shaming – the Commission is already doing that as part of the European Semester, its annual assessment of the factors that are hampering growth and competitiveness in each EU member state. Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy and Romania have all been called out on the lack of progress in fighting corruption in their public administrations.
Of course, there is a risk that such a summit simply leads to more “empty declarations”, but it would be a powerful signal that the EU is taking this issue seriously at the highest political level. Experience has shown that major breakthroughs are the result of galvanising political will rather than through narrow technical reforms – and this is where the European Council, and Tusk, can really show their worth.