Countries in the European Union (EU) are known for being wealthy, stable and democratic. However, this clean image is undermined by issues ranging from regional inequality and erosion of the rule of law to corruption problems.
Transparency International’s new Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021 is one of the largest, most detailed surveys of people’s views and experiences of corruption across the bloc.
Find out what people across the EU think about corruption
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We surveyed over 40,000 people in all 27 EU countries. The results reveal that almost a third of people think corruption is getting worse in their country. A further 44 per cent think it’s not getting any better.
Whether it’s perceptions of government corruption and impunity for wrongdoing, or the use of personal connections when accessing public services, the results challenge the EU’s image as a place of integrity. They also call for immediate and coordinated action against a growing problem.
Corruption on the rise, by country*
*Percentage of people who think corruption increased in the previous 12 months
Business and politics intertwined
People in the EU increasingly scrutinise the cosy relationship between business and government. When it is unclear what ties policymakers have to the business community, there is a risk that policies and regulations are made in favour of narrow private interests, rather than the common good.
We found that less than a third of people (30 per cent) think their government takes their views into account when making decisions.
Around half think that bribes or connections are commonly used by businesses to secure profitable government contracts and that big companies often avoid paying their taxes.
It is not surprising, then, that more than half of people in the EU think their government is run by private interests.
Government controlled by private interests, by country*
*Percentage of people who agree that the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves
Who’s seen as the most corrupt?
We found that almost two thirds of people in the EU think that government corruption is a problem in their country. This is made worse by widespread perceptions of impunity, with only 21 per cent of people believing that officials often face appropriate penalties for corruption.
Citizens are divided about which institutions have the biggest corruption problems. In half of EU countries, prime ministers and members of parliament are seen as the most corrupt. In the other half, it is business executives and bankers.
Yet trust in the police, local governments and the courts is high across the region. More than 60 per cent of EU residents reported trusting these institutions.
Corruption by institution*
*Percentage of people who think most or all people in the following institutions are corrupt
How equal is access to public services?
While bribery rates remain low at seven per cent, we found that around three in ten people used a personal connection to access health care, education and other public services. This is equivalent to more than 106 million people across the bloc.
Personal connection rates by country*
*Percentage of public service users who used personal connections to get a service in the previous 12 months
Health care is a hotspot for corruption. This is of particular concern during the current COVID-19 pandemic, when citizens urgently need medical support and vaccinations. Although just 6 per cent of people paid a bribe for health care, 29 per cent of EU residents have used personal connections to receive medical attention.
During a health crisis, using personal connections to access public services can be as damaging as paying bribes. Lives can be lost when connected people get a COVID-19 vaccine or medical treatment before those with more urgent needs. It's crucial that governments across the EU redouble their efforts to ensure a fair and equitable recovery from the ongoing pandemic.
The Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021 highlights data on sextortion, which is the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage. This often occurs in exchange for public services, like health care or education.
While 75 per cent of EU residents think that sextortion occurs at least occasionally, only seven per cent of people report either having experienced it directly or knowing someone who has.
Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania have the highest sextortion rates for people accessing public services.
Sextortion rates by country*
*Percentage of people who have experienced sextortion or know someone who has
Opinions across the EU are divided when it comes to the safety of reporting corruption – about half of people think they will suffer retaliation if they report corruption, and a similar number think it’s safe to do so.
But people across the region are hopeful. Almost two thirds of EU residents think that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.
Despite widely held beliefs to the contrary, corruption is a problem in the EU. Governments across the region and EU institutions need to make an immediate and concerted effort to ensure the lives of ordinary people are free of corruption. They should:
- Build people’s trust and participation by ensuring that decision-making is fully transparent and enabling citizens to hold governments to account.
- Protect all who expose corruption, including through fully transposing the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive by December 2021 in all Member States.
- Safeguard against undue influence in politics through improving transparency of all lobbying activities and tackling conflicts of interest among officials.
- Build integrity standards in the private sector by strengthening corporate anti-corruption standards.
- Improve corporate tax transparency and prevent tax avoidance, including by further harmonising EU corporate taxation rules.
- Reduce opportunities for corruption in government contracting by improving the availability and quality of public procurement data and ensuring public access to companies’ beneficial ownership registers.
- Ensure accountability for abuses of power, including breaches of the rule of law by governments, through effective monitoring, enforcement and dissuasive sanctions.
Curious about people's views in each country?See the results
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