The paper assesses the respect for the rule of law in the European Union (EU) as a whole and in each of its 27 member States, and provides countries, for the first time, with specific recommendations.
As in previous years, the 2022 Report analyses the changes that the EU countries have undergone since the last edition and the measures adopted in response to the threats identified a year before in the four areas which are key to advancing the rule of law:
1) Justice systems;
2) The anti-corruption frameworks;
3) Media freedom and pluralism;
4) Institutional issues related to checks and balances.
With regard to the fight against corruption and related crimes, the Commission highlighted the following trends in its Report:
1. Corruption perceptions across the EU
As before, the EU countries hold leading positions in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI): ten out of 20 less corrupt countries in the 2021 CPI are EU members with the average score of 66 for the Western European and EU countries being the highest for all regions reviewed.
However, despite the high average score for the region, the authors of the Report stress that a number of EU countries still deliver rather poor performance. In the last CPI for instance, Hungary was given only 43 points out of 100 possible, Cyprus was assigned 53, and Poland 56.
At the same time, such studies as the Special Eurobarometer 523 on Corruption and Flash Eurobarometer 507 on Businesses’ attitudes towards corruption in the EU show that corruption remains a serious problem for Europe:
- 68% of Europeans believe that corruption is widespread in their country;
- 41% consider that the level of corruption has increased in their country;
- Only 31% of respondents are of the opinion that their government’s efforts to combat corruption are effective;
- 63% of European companies consider that the problem of corruption is widespread in their country and a majority of companies (51%) think that it is unlikely that corrupt people or businesses in their country would be caught.
2. National anti-corruption strategies and their implementation
The Report underlines that almost all EU countries have adopted anti-corruption strategies that are regularly assessed from the point of view of their relevance and effectiveness and amended if needed.
In particular, since July 2021, these instruments and relevant action plans have been adopted or revised by Croatia, Romania, Greece, Lithuania and Malta, while Germany, Czechia, Italy and Latvia are revising their respective anti-corruption strategies.
The implementation process has led to important reform proposals in some member States: in Portugal, for instance, a legislative package aimed at fighting and preventing corruption in both the public and private sectors has been adopted (see here and here), and in Finland revisions of the criminal law anti-corruption legislation are ongoing.
3. Strengthening the capacity of institutions and the legal framework to combat corruption
The Report stresses that the member States have extensive legislation in place providing their criminal justice system with tools to effectively fight corruption.
Furthermore, EU countries continue to adopt measures to improve their legal frameworks also by bringing their legal provisions in line with the international anti-corruption standards and EU law. Poland, for example, increased criminal sanctions for corruption in public life and Greece strengthened the definition of active and passive bribery.
Reforms aimed at countering corruption are under discussion in other member States. Finland, for instance, is planning to criminalise trading in influence, while Slovakia aims at widening the definition of bribery, and Germany committed to strengthening sanctions for bribery by members of Parliament.
At the same time, the Report highlights that serious legislative gaps remain in some countries and need to be addressed, but are not being discussed by their legislative bodies. In Sweden in particular, shortcomings in the legal definition of foreign bribery have led to limited prosecutions and final judgments.
Besides the amendments to legal acts, in some EU countries, structural and organisational changes took place or are being considered with a view to increasing the capacity of the anti-corruption authorities. In Denmark, a Special Crime Unit was established within the police to improve the approach to serious crime, including complex corruption cases. In Bulgaria, reforms are envisaged to restructure the Commission for Combating Corruption and Confiscation of Illegal Property (Комисия за противодействие на корупцията и за отнемане на незаконно придобитото имущество) by dividing it into two independent bodies and streamlining the relevant functions, including investigation. Many member States have taken steps to increase the capacity of the authorities responsible for the fight against corruption through additional resources (Ireland, Latvia) or extra training (Estonia, Spain).
4. Eliminating obstacles to criminal investigation, prosecution and the application of dissuasive sanctions for corruption
The authors of the Report point out that procedural shortcomings, such as excessively cumbersome or unclear provisions on lifting immunities, short statutes of limitations and others, can severely obstruct the prosecution of corruption especially in complex and high-level cases.
In order to address the relevant problems, a number of EU countries have adopted the following measures:
- extended the statute of limitation for corruption (Portugal);
- changed the criminal legislative framework to enable a wider use of digital tools in procedural actions (Lithuania);
- removed the immunity of members of Government for corruption crimes (Croatia) etc.
Some EU countries are continuing to consolidate their track record of investigating, prosecuting and sanctioning high-level corruption. In Austria, investigations into high-level political corruption are subject to close scrutiny through a parliamentary investigation committee (Untersuchungsausschüsse); in Romania, the investigation and sanctioning of high-level corruption have advanced on cases that had been pending for years for formal procedural reasons; France has continued investigation into high-level corruption cases, despite challenges linked to the limited resources as well as structural weaknesses.
Conversely, a track record of tackling high-level corruption cases via investigations and prosecutions in other countries (Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary) remains to be established.
5. Strengthening the corruption prevention and integrity framework
The Report stresses that member States have continued adopting measures to strengthen the corruption prevention and integrity frameworks in the public and private sectors, including:
- To update ethical standards and codes of conduct;
- To revise rules on asset and interest disclosure, and conflicts of interest;
- To strengthen internal control mechanisms;
- To regulate lobbying and revolving doors, and to revise relevant provision etc.
5.1. Standards of conduct and conflict-of-interest management
As per the Report, most EU countries have legal provisions on conflicts of interest and the bodies overseeing their enforcement.
However, these norms are not sufficient enough in practical terms in some countries. To address these challenges, EU countries are adopting/exploring different measures, including:
- Establishment of anti-corruption or dedicated divisions in existing bodies responsible for overseeing the enforcement of standards of conduct and conflict-of-interest-related rules (Slovakia, the Netherlands) or expansion of relevant functions of existing anti-corruption bodies (Spain, Ireland);
- Enhanced verifications of compliance with the existing norms, in particular, in the law enforcement bodies (Romania, Bulgaria), the judiciary (Bulgaria) and in other areas;
- Update of the standards of conduct (Malta) and the procedure for their enforcement;
- Development of legal acts regulating compliance with integrity principles and functioning of the conflict-of-interest institute (Italy, the Netherlands, Finland) etc.
5.2. Lobbying and revolving doors
The Report notes that some EU countries have implemented legal provisions to ensure lobbying transparency or have revised the existing norms accordingly. Cyprus adopted a law on lobbying and publically-accessible registers on lobbyists; Germany is planning to launch a lobby register at the federal level this year; and Estonia released the guidelines for lobbying. In other EU countries, discussions on the adoption of legal acts regulating the relevant areas (Belgium, Italy, Spain, Latvia, Croatia) or the revision of existing provisions (Austria) are underway.
Many EU member States, namely Croatia, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Czechia and others, have restrictions on moving from the public sector to the private one (the so-called revolving doors). However, some of them have rather insufficient provisions: for example, Germany’s approach, where the restrictions and the length of the cooling-off period (the prohibition of employment in certain companies with respect to which former officials exercised management functions) differ for different categories of individuals, is labeled as “fragmented and inconsistent” by the Report; Sweden is criticised for the relevant restrictions being overall limited in scope; Denmark’s shortcoming consists in the fact that there are no relevant rules for ministers.
A number of countries, including Belgium, Italy, Spain and Latvia still do not have any provisions regulating lobbying and/or revolving doors.
5.3. Asset and interest disclosure
The Report points out that all member States have some rules in place to ensure that public sector officials are subject to asset and interest disclosure obligations. However, these vary in the scope and accessibility of disclosed information, as well as in the level of verification and enforcement.
In some countries reform efforts to enhance the effectiveness of relevant anti-corruption tools have progressed over the last year. In Portugal, the asset declaration obligations on political and senior public office holders were extended and strengthened; in Romania, the electronic submission of disclosures is mandatory since January 2022.
At the same time, gaps in legislation and other shortcomings are observed in many EU countries. In Greece in particular, only a limited proportion of declarations filed is verified on their accuracy; Hungary does not have any systematic checks of asset declarations; in Belgium, the content of the asset declarations can only be assessed in the course of a criminal investigation; in Austria, members of Parliament are not obliged to disclose assets and interests.
6. Whistleblower protection
The authors of the Report stress that transposition of Directive (EU) 2019/1937 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2019 on the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law has triggered a number of member States to adopt or revise relevant legislation (Cyprus, Portugal, France, Spain etc.), while others are in the process of revising existing national legislation.
7. Political party financing
The Report underlines that political party financing is an important risk area for corruption and several member States have adopted or are considering reforms to regulate this process. In Poland, the rules on political party financing have been revised to increase transparency; in the Netherlands, discussions continue on protecting political parties against foreign interference; in Estonia, draft legislation being prepared would aim to increase the powers of the Political Parties’ Financing Surveillance Committee (Erakondade Rahastamise Järelevalve Komisjon).
8. Investor citizenship of EU countries
In its Report, the Commission continues to call on the EU countries to repeal investor citizenship schemes due to the high risks both for security, including the possibility of infiltration of organised crime from other countries in the EU, and for the ordre public, given that this practice can be used by corrupt people in the laundering of proceeds of crime and lead to an increase in the number of crimes, including corruption and tax evasion, at the domestic level. Over the last year, the relevant norms have been repealed, in particular, in Bulgaria and Cyprus.
9. Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on corruption
The authors of the Report point out that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to have a negative impact on public governance in the EU countries, including on the rise in corruption cases.
In order to detect and prevent corruption offences in such areas as the procurement of medical equipment, issuance vaccination certificates and others, member States stepped up transparency and monitoring: in particular, a number of countries carried out targeted audits (Austria, Czechia, Slovenia and Portugal) or monitoring activities (Lithuania). In Belgium, the Court of Audit released a special dashboard to increase transparency with regard to government support measures.