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Germans concerned about big businesses dominating political decisions

Global Corruption Barometer – European Union 2021 in focus

Black and white image of people standing in the Reichstag building in Berlin

Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel / Unsplash

Anna-Maija Mertens

Executive Director, Transparency International Germany

In Germany, recent allegations of corruption related to COVID-19 masks have shocked the public. Members of both federal and state parliaments had not only facilitated sales of masks to state institutions, but some of them also received payments for arranging lucrative deals.

While the whole nation was suffering because of the pandemic – with many losing or fearing for their lives and livelihoods – some politicians were apparently making money out of the crisis. This is a scandal for the society and a blow for political integrity.

Prosecutors have launched investigations, and even in the cases where the members of the parliament did not receive direct payments for their involvement, there were conflicts of interest. These included holding shares in a company that sold masks to the government.

A faulty system aids corrupt behaviour

The problem, however, is not just individuals – in this case, the members of parliament who acted unethically. In fact, the problem is the lack of reasonable rules to prevent such wrongdoing. In Germany, it is not forbidden to play both roles at the same time: to be a member of a parliament making important decisions on various matters and to be a lobbyist pushing particular interests in the same matters.

Furthermore, until this spring, there was no lobbying register in any form. Now, finally, the government has decided to establish a register for the Bundestag, but due to numerous exemptions, it will not go far enough to help the public understand who is influencing their elected representatives.

There will also be no legislative footprint tracking each step in the creation of a law. Lobbyists’ involvement in political decisions – and thus the actual power lobbying organisations possess – will not be visible in the register. They’ll just have to document their aims and funding. Other actors, like politicians, won’t even have to do that.

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New survey: Germans don’t feel represented in politics

This secrecy around who is influencing politicians is reflected by what people say in the new Global Corruption Barometer – European Union 2021. 62 per cent of people think that a few private interests control German politics. Moreover, 44 per cent think their interests are not considered in political decision-making at all.

Additionally, 26 per cent think that the corruption in Germany has increased, while 55 per cent think it has stayed at the same level – that’s four out of five Germans who think the country’s corruption problems are not being solved.

With over 40,000 participants in 27 countries across the European Union, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer – European Union 2021 presents one of the largest, most detailed sets of public opinion data on people’s views and experiences of corruption and bribery in the region.

Explore the findings

Views on business are also alarming: 35 per cent of Germans think that all or most business executives are involved in corruption. During the last few years, there have been several corruption scandals in companies – the most discussed case was Dieselgate, in which a number of German car manufacturers defrauded regulators in regard to emissions. The German government did not fully enforce the law, but invited top executives from the car manufacturers to the famous “Diesel Summit” in 2017, resulting in compromises that let the polluters off the hook and enabled them to keep emitting at harmfully high levels. This raised questions about where the government’s loyalties lay.

Better sanctions and more transparency needed

The impression that dominates is that there are no real sanctions for companies; as long as you and your organisation are big and powerful enough, you do not have to be afraid of consequences.

Again, this problem is not just about single failing companies and individuals, it is about the lack of good regulations. One of the many regulatory gaps that exists is no criminal liability for corporations - in Germany, only individuals can be convicted for breaking criminal law. Therefore, the sanctions that companies face are often soft because they only follow minor breaches of law.

However, we as members of civil society should not just talk about others. Confidence in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is also of concern: more than 10 per cent of people in Germany think that all or most NGOs are involved in corruption. This should remind us to encourage our partners in civil society to be more open and transparent. Transparency International Germany does this with the voluntary initiative for transparent civil society (Initiative Transparente Zivilgesellschaft), with more than 1400 other civil society organisations.

At the end of the day, the most powerful tool that we have to generate more trust throughout society is transparency, in the sense of engagement, traceability and accessible information. It enables citizens to meaningfully take part in political, economic and social life. The huge lack of trust Germans have in public and private institutions cannot be fixed without more transparency.

Transparency International Germany is engaging in the upcoming federal parliamentary elections with the slogan #MehrTransparenzWagen, urging for a cultural change that fully embraces transparency.

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