The global accountability group Transparency International says the European Union and its institutions are so complex and fragmented that it leaves them open to corruption and fraud.
The shortcoming were outlined in a complex report on the EU’s components released in late April.
“Across the board in the system, we identified a number of things, including opaque EU decision making, [and] a lack of transparency in EU lobbying,” said Mark Perera, the study’s lead researcher.
“We also see there needs to be improvement in how conflicts of interest are managed for senior EU decision makers,” he said. “We also see there is weak protection for internal EU whistleblowers within the institutions - what we consider to be a key safeguard in identifying suspected corruption. And we also see that there are weak sanctions for corrupt companies.”
The European Union describes itself as a political and economic partnership between its 28 member nations.
Forged in its current form in 1993, the EU is based in Brussels, but various parts such as the European Parliament and the EU Court of Justice are in other locations, designed to spread activities among its member states.
Transparency International said in many nations it has studied that one frequent avenue for corruption is lobbying - outside interests influencing executive and legislative decision-makers. And, it said, the EU’s current regulations controlling how lobbyists interact with its leaders and lawmakers are far too weak. The EU has a lobby register which operates on a voluntary basis, the Wall Street Journal reported.
One analyst who agreed with the study’s call for strong EU lobbying controls is Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“[It’s] absolutely imperative for an institution like the EU, which is responsible for a lot of regulations for the entire continent of Europe,” Kirkegaard said. “And not having an idea about the power of lobbying, and the access of lobbyists to policy makers in that situation, I think should be unacceptable in any democratic nation.”
When it comes to ensuring senior figures comply with ethics rules, the European Union’s Institutions are largely self-regulated. Perera said that is a bad idea.
“Ethics committees are normally filled with former or current members of those institutions,” he said. “So we feel they lack independence, and very often, they lack teeth as well."
“And, in the past month, we’ve seen that a number of MEPs - Members of the European Parliament - were found to have broken the rules in terms of failing to declare sponsored [expenses paid] trips to Azerbaijan and China,” he said. “However they faced no disciplinary sanctions. So, we feel there needs to be improvements in certain areas to address this complacency.”
Many countries’ leaders and lawmakers are required by law to fully disclose their financial holdings, interests, and assets - to help assure the citizenry that decisions are not made in conflict with the public’s interests.
Perara said this as yet another problem area for the EU.
“We find that the European Parliament, and the European Commission,” he said, “have an obligation to declare their financial interests. However, we found that there was no evidence that suggests that the financial information in these [personal asset] declarations is being systematically and comprehensively verified.”
Kirkegaard said it appears that the EU’s built-in inertia would rather maintain the status quo.
”It is true that if you really want to get to the bottom of this, you would have to revise and reform the so-called EU Treaty, which is an enormously cumbersome political process,” he said.
Recent polls show that some 70 percent of the EU’s residents believe its Institutions are vulnerable to corruption.
“If the new EU leadership is serious about arresting the decline in trust and confidence, corruption risks need to be dealt with before they become corruption scandals., said Carl Dolan, director of Transparency’s EU office.
But a spokesman for the European Commission said the institution maintains honesty and transparency.
"The risk of wrongdoing or of corruption and fraud can never be entirely eliminated," spokesman Antonio Gravili told The Associated Press. "But the report clearly recognizes that the Commission has taken a comprehensive set of measures intended to reduce this risk to a minimum, and that a strong framework is in place."
A spokeswoman for the EU Parliament, Marjory van den Broeke, told the New York Times. “Compared to other parliaments, it’s a very transparent parliament.”