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People see low political integrity throughout the European Union

Following scandals and collusion between governments and businesses, lack of public trust in political institutions has serious consequences

People in a crowd with their hands lifted to the blue sky, silhouetted against the light, with a tan-coloured building in the front

Image: Raul Mellado Ortiz / Shutterstock

Nothing tests citizens’ trust in their government like a crisis, particularly one on the scale of the current pandemic. While people have been struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, many politicians in the European Union (EU) found new opportunities to consolidate their wealth and power by colluding with businesses, restricting civic liberties and side-stepping anti-corruption measures.

Much of this happened behind closed doors, but citizens were aware of resources being skewed in favour of certain powerful groups instead of being used for the common good. And their perceptions are reflected in the results of the Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021, which surveyed over 40,000 people in all 27 EU countries about their views and experiences of corruption across the bloc. The results challenged the EU’s clean image.

Measuring political integrity

Particularly startling were public perceptions of low levels of political integrity. Political integrity describes a system where decision-makers exercise their power consistently in favour of the common good, rather than to sustain private interests or the wealth or position of powerful individuals.

Around half of the people in the EU think that bribes or connections are commonly used by businesses to secure government contracts; less than a third of people think their leaders take their views into account when making decisions; and over half of people think that their government is run by a few private interests.

Transparency International’s new working paper builds on these worrying findings to examine public perceptions of political integrity – the extent to which EU citizens think decision-makers exercise their power for the common good. We also consider the causes and impacts of political integrity perceptions.

To understand public perceptions of political integrity, we have selected five questions from the Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021 survey and aggregated their results to construct a score.

  1. Is appropriate action taken against corrupt officials?
  2. Corruption by institution: Head of Government’s Office
  3. Corruption by institution: Members of Parliament
  4. Are citizen views taken into account by the government?
  5. Is the government run by a few big interests looking out for themselves?

Find out more about the methodology in the working paper, For the common good or private interests? People’s views of political integrity in the European Union.

Startling lack of political integrity in the EU

The results indicate that people in the EU perceive a widespread and systemic lack of political integrity. The average score for countries in the EU is 48 out of 100, where 0 is the lowest and 100 is the highest possible result. Even countries that scored the highest – Sweden (67/100) and Finland (67/100) – were far from perfect. This is despite their top scores on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2020, which means that building positive perceptions of political integrity requires more than fighting public sector corruption.

Take Germany for example. Despite its good performance on the CPI 2020 (80/100), Germany scored only 53 out of 100 points in our working paper. After shocking allegations of corruption in 2020 related to COVID-19 mask sales by federal and state members of parliament, this was not a big surprise. The scandal was marked by revelations of potential conflicts of interest decision-makers had, including holding shares in a company that sold masks to the government. For reasons like this, 62 per cent of people in Germany think that a few private interests control German politics, while 44 per cent think their views are not considered in political decision-making at all. This has understandably led to low perceptions of political integrity.

People's perceptions of political integrity scores, by country*

*Based on data from the Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021

Our analysis shows that economic disenfranchisement and inequality negatively affect people’s perceptions of political integrity. When people and their livelihoods are supported by government policies, they are more likely to believe in their leaders. Conversely, when people are struggling to make ends meet while seeing corporations get away with not paying their fair share, they understandably lose faith in the system. Perceptions are also affected by the level of democracy in the country and political culture – Euroscepticism and high levels of political polarisation are associated with low perceptions of integrity.

Believing that you have the power to fight corruption and bring about change also has an effect. When people think that they can make a difference, they tend to think politicians have integrity.

High distrust, low perceptions of political integrity: What’s at stake?

The political polarisation that goes hand-in-hand with low political integrity can badly damage democracies. Honest and nuanced assessments of institutions’ performance can get lost when political discourse is polarised. In the absence of such assessments, negative perceptions rule and end up being attributed to the system as a whole rather than a few individuals that generate the polarisation and dysfunction. Polarisation threatens healthy political participation and works to the advantage of authoritarian candidates. Once in power, such autocrats go on to weaken formal institutions such as electoral bodies, restrict media freedoms and curtail other democratic checks and balances.

Slovenia, for example, scored 37 out of 100 on perceptions of political integrity – the third lowest score in the whole of the EU. The polarising, right-wing government has been quietly trying to take more control over checks and balance institutions and the media – the government has been accused of targeting judges and exerting “inadmissible pressure on prosecutors”. The prime minister has also undermined the media, calling the Slovenia Press Agency a “national disgrace”, while the government has cut its funding and driven the agency to the point where it could be forced to stop operations soon.

A continued situation of corruption and low political integrity is only likely to keep Slovenia locked in a cycle of increasing polarisation and further attacks on independent institutions.

High levels of distrust in governments also makes citizens less willing to respect regulations and institutions. This can be damaging in many ways, particularly during crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic; as citizens ignore guidelines and laws, everything from containing and mitigating the pandemic to ensuring a quick and inclusive recovery become much harder.

Addressing the problem: What needs to change?

Our analysis makes it clear that all EU countries have much work to do to improve political integrity and resulting perceptions. The future of their democracies, citizens’ trust in their institutions and social cohesion hang in the balance. To do so, they need to ensure that access to power, the exercise of power and accountability for decision-making are all free of undue influence, and that decisions by those in power are made for the common good.

All EU countries should:

  • embed citizen participation and consultation at all levels of decision-making
  • establish or strengthen independent ethics and oversight bodies for regulating political finance, lobbying activities and the financial interests of public officials
  • revise regulations on unethical interactions between public officials and private companies, and improve enforcement
  • conduct a review and devise action plans, at national and EU levels, to identify and reduce undue influence from narrow groups across all 17 SDGs, with a focus on key areas of public policy, including taxation, education, healthcare and climate policy

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