European Union = Corruption?

Corruption, a word that comes to English via Latin and the Romance languages, has long meant the death, putrefaction and disintegration of physical, moral or social bodies, but this is not the gloss bestowed on it by the President of the European Union’s Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering.

Last Thursday, March 13, as reported by the Telegraph, he blithely brushed aside the million of euros wrongly claimed by MEPs, and airily attributed their misappropriation to multiculturalism. Taxpayers, preoccupied with their jobs, their families, and the finalists of Dancing on Ice, may join him in looking away, but the problem of corruption makes looking away as counterproductive as it would be in an epidemic.

The European Union has had a troubled relationship with the taxpayers' money that pours into its coffers and is in turn redistributed to peoples and projects in 27 different nations. The most recent example of malfeasance, which the EU tried to bury, was MEP expenses. We received a summary of the internal EP Audit Report on EU parliamentary assistance allowances, which the EU had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep secret. That it tried confirms a perennial problem in the EU -- lack of transparency.

The audit was based on a random sample of 167 of the 4,700 total payments made to MEPs in October 2004. Yes, you would expect a 2004 audit report to arrive in a timely manner, but the poor auditors had the devil of a time tracking down payments.

According to their audit, "In total we are talking about 785 MEPs, which represents a total yearly allowance for assistants of €140,000,000 [€15,500 per MEP per month]." The secret internal report concluded that the rules for compensation were vague. More than 50% of the 167 payments reviewed did not appear to be above board. Many monthly service payments had no documentation. Many payments were made to non-existent or non-functioning assistants, etc. The audit reached the disturbing conclusion that a similar percentage of anomalies would occur in the remaining 4,500 payments, a high figure when multiplied by 12 months every year.

American readers may be surprised. They would expect a European civil service to staff assistants for MEPs and hold them accountable with a paper trail for expenditures. As long ago as 1854 in Britain the Northcote Trevelyan Commission took a penetrating look at the British Civil Service, and called for ethical and professional standards and rigorous qualifying exams. The resulting reforms created public servants (and they are servants) who were known for their incorruptibility (Niall Ferguson, Empire).

The MEP allowance disarray apparently extends into every EU institution and project. For this reason the European Court of Auditors has not been able to sign off on EU books since 1994 . (It ingenuously claims this is because its standards of accounting are too high.)

Should corruption be identified, the Court of Auditors has no legal power to act. Instead it informs OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud investigative body, which was created in 1999 after its predecessor, UCLAF, was racked by scandal. But, mirabile dictu, OLAF has no judicial or disciplinary powers, either, and it cannot oblige prosecutors to prosecute.

Corruption is encouraged by lack of transparency, poor accounting practices, lack of enforcement, and by a political culture that suggests that lining the pocket -- otherwise called fraud, theft, insider deals, graft, kickbacks, bribes, and nepotism -- are part of the European Union’s varied multicultural charms. The temptation is obvious: the EU is awash in unaccounted-for billions. It collects money through such schemes as Emissions Trading and Value Added Taxes (VAT) which reportedly are being siphoned away by "crooks, fraudsters, and even terrorists."

These difficulties are the natural result of a principle that has the force of physical law, but is ignored by proponents of big government. The principle is this -- men, and women, are not angels; no law will keep all people honest; given the opportunity, some people will become corrupt; the more money that flows through government, and the farther away from its source, the greater the risk of corruption.

This is why sensible people want government to be local, small and competent. They saw and rejected the corruption of powerful European empires and their parasites. They want local funding and administration of schools, fire and police departments, water and sewage and private, competitive health care because they understand this means local accountability from the neighbor they know, not the MEP or EU bureaucrat they have never met. They advocate national defense and countries working together on a few shared issues as exceptions that prove the principle.

The infection of corruption spreads, and destroys the trust between people. It poisons relationships, and threatens communities. The trust that supports and flows out of incorruptible government is essential to freedom and prosperity, and to you and your children.

David Abbott and Catherine Glass blog at Brits at Their Best.