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Shining the Light on Corruption Risks in Europe

How significant are the corruption risks within the European Union? What are the main gaps in the anti-corruption systems of European countries? What needs to be done? These were the main questions posed by a pan-European evidence-based advocacy initiative against corruption carried out by Transparency International over the last 18 months. This article summarises the key findings of this project.

Using Transparency International’s National Integrity System Assessment approach(1), this project assessed the anti-corruption systems of 25 European states(2), with a view towards providing a sound basis to advocate for reform in the different countries as well as in the European Union. This article first outlines the analytical framework of the research and then introduces the current context of anti-corruption efforts in Europe. Its main section highlights the interesting findings of the research, pointing to the most significant deficiencies and gaps in the national integrity systems. It concludes with the key recommendations emerging from the regional study.(3)

The National Integrity System Approach

Transparency International’s National Integrity System (NIS) assessment approach provides a framework to analyse the robustness and effectiveness of a country’s institutions in preventing and fighting corruption. The concept has been developed and promoted by Transparency International as part of its holistic approach to counter corruption. A well-functioning national integrity system provides effective safeguards against corruption as part of the larger struggle against abuse of power, malfeasance, and misappropriation. When institutions are characterised by a lack of appropriate regulations and unaccountable behaviour, corruption is likely to thrive with negative knock-on effects for equitable growth, sustainable development and social cohesion.

The NIS assessment provides a detailed evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of these institutions in the form of a comprehensive country report as well as a set of quantitative indicators for each institution. Its results can be used as a benchmarking tool to measure progress over time, to compare performance across institutions, and to identify priorities for reform.

The assessment’s research component focuses on an evaluation of the key public institutions and non-state actors in a country’s governance system with regard to 1. their overall capacity, 2. their internal governance systems and procedures, and 3. their role in the overall integrity system. These institutions are: legislature, executive, judiciary, public sector, law enforcement agencies, the electoral management body, ombudsman, supreme audit institution, anti-corruption agencies, political parties, media, civil society, and private sector.

The assessment examines both the formal framework of each institution, as well as the actual institutional practice, highlighting discrepancies between the formal provisions and reality on the ground. This in-depth investigation of the relevant governance institutions, which uses key informant interviews, desk research and field tests as its primary data sources, is embedded in a concise context analysis of the overall political, social, economic and cultural conditions in which these governance institutions operate. The collected information is used by the researcher to score a set of indicators, which provide a quantitative summary of the performance of the respective institution.(4)


EU NIS Table


Addressing Corruption in Europe – Losing Ground?

The limited amount of systematic analysis of anti-corruption systems in Europe indicates that the issue has not been a key priority for policy-oriented research. Apart from comparative studies of specific aspects of the anti-corruption system, e.g. in the context of the Council of Europe GRECO (Group of States against Corruption) evaluations(5), not much Europe-wide analysis of the functioning of national anti-corruption systems has been undertaken so far. However, the European public is concerned about the extent of corruption with 3 out of 4 respondents to a recent public opinion survey regarding corruption as a ‘major problem’ in their respective country.(6)

The European National Integrity System project sought to shed some light on what lies behind these concerns. Over the course of 2011, 25 National Integrity System assessments were conducted in Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland(7), Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. The findings of this national level research informed a regional report which was published in June 2012. 

 Where Money, Politics, and Power Meet - Locating Corruption Risks in Europe

The research revealed significant corruption risks in Europe, located mostly at the intersections between money, politics and power, as the figure above demonstrates.

While public watchdog institutions such as supreme audit offices and ombudsman institutions are found to be the strongest bulwarks of integrity, political parties, public administrations and the private sector are assessed as the weakest forces in the promotion of integrity across Europe. Given the many – often monetary - linkages between these three groups of actors, this finding points towards significant risks in the area of political corruption, which are further elaborated in the key cross-cutting weaknesses as identified by the research.

Political party financing is inadequately regulated across the region

Political party financing is a particularly high-risk area for corruption; even countries often described as having ‘low corruption contexts’ have not managed to insulate themselves against this risk. Sweden and Switzerland, for example, have no mandatory regulation of party financing and many countries have legislative loopholes and weak enforcement mechanisms.

Lobbying remains veiled in secrecy

 In most European countries, the influence of lobbyists is shrouded in secrecy and a major cause for concern. Opaque lobbying rules result in skewed decision-making that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Only six of the 25 countries assessed (France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and the UK) have regulated lobbying to any degree and in many cases the implementation of lobbyist registers is severely lacking.

Parliaments are not living up to ethical standards

 Important integrity safeguards which should be in place in parliaments, including mandatory codes of conduct for parliamentarians, clear conflict of interest regulations and rules on disclosure of interests, assets and income have not been instituted in many European countries, and where they are in place, practical implementation is often found wanting. In 10 of the 25 countries, the law limits public disclosure of MPs’ asset and income declarations: Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Switzerland.

Access to information is limited in practice

Access to information laws are in place in all countries assessed, apart from Spain, where a draft law is under consideration by parliament at the time of writing. However, in 20 of the 25 countries, implementation is found to be poor. Practical long delays (the Czech Republic, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden), low levels of public awareness of freedom of information laws (Germany, Portugal and Switzerland), lack of an independent oversight body (Bulgaria, Hungary and Latvia) and municipal authorities’ failure and/or lack of capacity to comply with the rules (the Czech Republic and Romania).

High corruption risks remain in public procurement

Legislative frameworks have been brought in line with EU procurement directives, but it is an open secret in many European countries that the rules are systematically circumvented and that this can be done with impunity. Problems with public procurement are most acute in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Romania and Slovakia.

Protection for whistleblowers is severely lacking

The vast majority of EU member states have failed to introduce dedicated whistleblower protection legislation, in either the public or private sector. Of the 25 countries, only six have dedicated whistleblower legislation – Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Switzerland and the UK – and in all but two of the countries assessed (Norway and the UK), whistleblowers do not have sufficient protection from reprisals in practice.


Findings from the European NIS project confirm that there are indeed significant corruption risks in Europe. As expected, these do not concern the more visible areas of bribery of frontline public service providers, but are mostly related to the sphere of high-level politics, where there are significant risks for undue influence by special interest groups, subversions of the democratic political process and policy and state capture. At a time when public confidence in European political and business leaders is at an all-time low, this project and its many concrete recommendations deserve careful attention from policy-makers across Europe.





1.  Transparency International, National Integrity System Assessment: Background, Rationale and Methodology

2.     Country reports are available at:

3.     S. Mulcahy, Money, Politics, Power: Corruption Risks in Europe (Berlin: Transparency International, 2012)

4.     Since no international review of the country scores was undertaken to ensure their cross-country comparability, cross-country comparisons of the scores are discouraged

5.     Council of Europe, GRECO Evaluations

6.     Special Eurobarometer 374: Corruption, Council of Europe, February 2012

7.     In Ireland a National Integrity System assessment was conducted in 2009 and an update was carried out in 2011/2012 in the framework of this project. 

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18 Sep 2012

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