A crisis, especially one of the magnitude of the present pandemic, puts residents’ faith in their government to the test. While citizens were dealing with the COVID-19 issue, many politicians in the European Union (EU) discovered new ways to consolidate their money and power by collaborating with companies, curtailing civic freedoms, and avoiding anti-corruption legislation.
Although much of this took place behind closed doors, citizens were aware that resources were being skewed in favour of particular powerful groups rather than being used for the greater benefit. And the results of the Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021, which polled over 40,000 people in all 27 EU nations about their thoughts and experiences with corruption, reflect their beliefs. The findings cast doubt on the EU’s pristine image.
Measuring political integrity
Public judgments of low political integrity were particularly surprising. Political integrity refers to a system in which decision-makers consistently use their power for the greater benefit rather than to protect private interests or powerful people’ money or positions.
Around half of EU citizens believe that firms routinely use bribery or connections to gain government contracts; less than a third believe that their leaders consider their opinions when making decisions; and more than half believe that their government is governed by a few special interests.
Transparency International’s latest working paper examines public perceptions of political integrity – the extent to which EU people believe decision-makers use their authority for the common good – based on these alarming findings. We also address the causes and consequences of public perceptions of political integrity.
PEOPLE’S PERCEPTIONS OF POLITICAL INTEGRITY SCORES, BY COUNTRY*
Economic disenfranchisement and inequality, according to our findings, have a negative impact on people’s judgments of political honesty. People are more likely to trust their leaders when government actions benefit them and their livelihoods. When people are trying to make ends meet while companies avoid paying their fair share, it’s understandable that they lose faith in the system. Judgments of integrity are also influenced by the country’s level of democracy and political culture; Euroscepticism and high levels of political polarization are linked to low perceptions of integrity.
Believing that you have the ability to resist corruption and affect change has an impact as well. People believe politicians have integrity when they believe they can make a difference.
High distrust, low perceptions of political integrity: What’s at stake?
Political polarization, which is often accompanied by a lack of political integrity, can be disastrous for democracies. When political discourse is polarised, honest and nuanced judgments of institutions’ effectiveness might be lost. In the absence of such judgments, negative attitudes reign supreme, and polarisation and dysfunction are assigned to the system as a whole rather than a few individuals. Polarization jeopardises healthy political participation and helps authoritarian politicians win. Once in power, autocrats stifle formal institutions like election boards, limit media freedoms, and eliminate other democratic checks and balances.
Slovenia, for example, received a score of 37 out of 100 on impressions of political integrity, which was the third lowest in the EU. The right-wing administration has been secretly attempting to gain more control over checks and balances institutions and the media – the government has been accused of targeting judges and imposing “inadmissible pressure on prosecutors.” The prime minister has also attacked the media, branding the Slovenian Press Agency a “national embarrassment,” while the government has slashed its financing, putting the agency on the verge of shutting down.
Slovenia is likely to remain trapped in a cycle of rising polarization and attacks on independent institutions if corruption and low political integrity persist.
Citizens who have a high level of skepticism for their governments are also less likely to follow legislation and adhere to institutions. This can be harmful in a variety of ways, especially during emergencies like as the COVID-19 pandemic; when citizens disregard standards and laws, everything from confining and managing the epidemic to ensuring a speedy and inclusive recovery becomes much more difficult.
Addressing the problem: What needs to change?
Our findings show that all EU countries have a long way to go in terms of improving political integrity and, as a result, perceptions. Their democracies’ futures, voters’ trust in their institutions, and social cohesiveness are all on the line. To do so, they must ensure that access to power, the use of authority, and decision-making accountability are all free of undue influence, and that individuals in positions of power make decisions for the common benefit.
All EU countries should:
- Establish or strengthen independent ethical and oversight authorities for regulating political funding, lobbying activities, and the financial interests of public officials, and embed citizen participation and consultation at all levels of decision-making
- Regulations governing unethical contacts between public officials and private enterprises should be revised, and enforcement should be improved.
- conduct a study and develop action plans at the national and EU levels to identify and limit undue influence from narrow groups across all 17 SDGs, with an emphasis on important public policy areas such as taxation, education, healthcare, and climate policy.