Greasy palms Germany urged to do more to combat corruption, curb lobbies

Germany is failing to address corruption, according to Transparency International’s annual report. The NGO painted an even grimmer picture of Eastern Europe, where misconduct thrives under autocratic governments.
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Can you give me a better ranking?

Germany likes to think it expects the utmost rectitude from political leaders. Not long ago, Berlin removed a sitting president from his mostly ceremonial office after it emerged he had received an interest-free loan from a wealthy friend a few years earlier.

By contrast, the United States allowed a tycoon to become president without him severing ties to his multinational business empire.

So it’s not surprising that Germany tends to do better than the US in Transparency International’s annual corruption report.

But the NGO's most recent ranking didn't exactly heap praise on Berlin. Germany retained the same score as last year in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) report, but slipped back two places and is now ranked 12th. Luxembourg and the UK improved their scores, and so took the two spots above it. "Those who only manage but don't take new initiatives are in danger of falling behind internationally," said Edda Müller, the boss of Transparency Germany.

It’s unfortunate that the coalition agreement makes no mention of regulating lobbies. Edda Müller, Transparency Germany

The CPI measures perceived corruption in politics and public administration based on expert surveys. The scale ranges from zero (for an extremely high level of corruption) to 100 (no perceived corruption at all). This year, 180 countries and territories worldwide were assessed. In particular, countries with less protection for the press and non-governmental organizations tended to score higher for corruption, the Berlin-based NGO said.

Ms. Müller said Germany needed to crack down on lobbying. “It’s unfortunate that the coalition agreement makes no mention of regulating lobbies,” she said, calling for a mandatory lobby register and extended disclosure requirements for conflicts of interest. Rules on party financing should also be tightened, the chairwoman added.

She didn't mention the car industry specifically, but many in Germany have long criticized the cozy ties between the government and automakers. Suspicions of corruption have also dogged Airbus for years and resulted in CEO Tom Enders announcing late last year that he will not seek an extension of his contract once it ends in 2019.

Frank words from Edda Müller.

With 89 points, New Zealand held the top spot in Transparency International's ranking for the third year running, followed by Scandinavian countries and Switzerland. Germany scored 81 points, while the US ranked 16th with 76 points. Syria, South Sudan and Somalia came last.

But the NGO found that, despite improvements in the UK and Italy, corruption is worsening in many EU countries, and particularly in Eastern European countries governed by populists.

Bulgaria, which currently holds the rotating EU council presidency, was ranked the 71st most corrupt out of 180 countries, on a par with South Africa and far behind Saudi Arabia. One of the most recent EU members, having joined in 2007, Bulgaria consistently fares the worst among the 28-nation bloc when it comes to bribery.

But while Bulgaria’s overall score is the lowest, at least it hasn't dropped. In Hungary, the situation is deteriorating. The country has lost 10 points in the index over the last six years. Led by an increasingly autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Hungary is “one of the most alarming examples of shrinking civil society space in Eastern Europe,” Transparency International noted.

Mr. Orbán, who is running for a third term this year, is burdening NGOs, while independent media struggle increasingly to monitor and criticize the government. Budapest recently drafted laws that threaten to further restrict NGOs and could revoke their charitable status. Poland and Romania are considering similar rules and the right-wing government in Warsaw has been curtailing press freedom for years.

Looking at lessons from across the region, the NGO said its regional analysis confirmed that more civil engagement is needed to hold leaders and governments to account. Compliant media, meanwhile, are unable to inform the public when officials are corrupt. “Governments should serve communities and be transparent in their activities, and communities should be able to hold governments to account,” Transparency wrote.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To reach the author: [email protected].