MEPs Anti-fraud votes for more votes?

Cecilia Malmstrom, European Home Affairs Commissioner (EC Audiovisual Services)

Cecilia Malmstrom, European Home Affairs Commissioner (EC Audiovisual Services)

Fellow Europeans, you don’t have to worry any more about corruption in the Old Continent. Our MEPs voted yesterday, Thursday 20 March, in favour of the penalisation of the action of stealing your paid taxes. Can an imprisonment penalty of up to 5 or 10 years really stop the “bad boys” from usurping the EU money in a Union that is suffering from a ‘tiny’ annual corruption of 120 billion euros? And more so, why our MEPs who more and more feel now the stress of May’s judgement day coming closer, finalised this 7 weeks before the EU elections?

Let’s take one thing at a time. That there is corruption in Europe is not news. Most of us have heard about scandals of corruption in Europe; either we live in the European South where no TV zapping can save us from hearing about it or we live in the European North, where people still usurp money from the state but with style and finesse, like true ‘gentlemen’. One thing is for sure though; when we heard our good Commissioner for European Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, that EU corruption is costing us 120 billion euros per year, which by the way is roughly the annual EU budget, we all felt the urge to pack our stuff and get a one way ticket to… Colombia.

A normal public official would use this kind of statement as the perfect intro for her resignation, but not Cecilia. Instead, she went on presenting the ‘groundbreaking’ anti-corruption report last month. This ‘insightful’ piece of research pointed the truly unexpected; that Greece, Italy and Spain are perceived to be the kings of corruption in the EU. Did you really need to read Cecilia’s report to get this anyway? I mean whoever can walk and chew gum at the same time was able to infer this given the evolutions of the past years in the EU. However, what is frankly surprising with this report, which by the way has met substantial criticism last month by several independent thinkers like Transparency International, is the fact that there is no reference to the significant corruption in the EU institutions. Instead, only the ‘dodgy’ EU member states are to blame for the bad of this world! Like it is only normal for an EU that needs every year two budgets, one for the real needs and one for the ‘tips’, not to point first and foremost to itself; and by itself I surely mean the conglomerate of Berlaymont et al.

The cases of corruption in the EU institutions are neither one nor two. From the 1999 massive resignation of the infamous Santer Commission to Prodi’s Commission and the formation of OLAF (European Anti-Fraud Office), we have come a long way. Not to forget here the big “Eurostat scandal” in 2003 and the severe criticisms for OLAF’s ‘delayed’ attention to it, as well as John Dalli’s, former Health Commissioner, recent bribery scandal, where a lot of EU money has been put in the wrong pockets. Scandals and corruption in the EU exist as long as there are windows to break into. And the EU mechanism has grown so big that those windows unfortunately are plenty. How come then our MEPs believe that with their vote for a maximum of 5 years sentence, that can be of course less if the lawyer is not a terrible one, can close those windows with cement?

According to the valid relevant press release by “Budgetary Control”, fraud costs the EU budget 600 million per year. And let’s clear this out here. I don’t say here that the introduction of criminal penalties against budget fraud is a bad idea. On the contrary, it is something that should have been done for years now. Nevertheless, this is not at all enough, as the maximum sentence of 5 or 10 years of imprisonment, that can be reduced in court, will not stop the thieves from entering inside our rooms at night. Especially when they know that the windows are 3 metres high and wide open, as we have seen in the terrible scandals of the past. Instead, nobody can deny that the emphasis should be on a parallel level on how to make more rigid the control mechanisms of the EU, that have undoubtedly too many loopholes.

The saddest thing, though, about all this, that gives us a good taste of how MEPs think, is nothing but the timing of this vote. Why did our good representators choose this very moment to cast their votes? Why do they want to show us that they are the honest policemen that will bring to justice whoever dares to think to steal money from the budget? And why in March, the start of Spring?

Sometimes it is this hypocrisy in the EU that is hard to accept. It is very obvious that our MEPs felt the urge to do something on the eve of the EU elections in May to throw dust in the eyes of the voters. Especially at times when polls show the great lack of confidence of the average European in the European elections and the work and integrity of the MEPs. This is also the reason why the turnout in the EU elections since 1979 has dropped from 62% to 43% in 2009, and so did the trust and interest of the European voter. Is it more a matter of corruption and fraud scandals and distrust than a problem of the European democracy and its failure to engage active European voters? But this is rather a topic for a bulky PhD thesis on its own. In any case, our good MEPs are trying every last minute trick and opportunity to convince us that they are good and they should be re-elected, as they allegedly put an end to the European budget fraud with one single vote…

It seems to me that they are much concerned mainly with the turnout of EU elections 2014. But in fact they shouldn’t. According to a very basic theory in political science, “Economic Voting”, in times of crisis and economic unrest, the voter will be very much motivated to go and cast her vote, in order to change the economic conditions that brought this mess in her life. In democracy there is no dead-end! So, please don’t you worry. We will surely go to the ballot this May more than in the past. And the reason is not so much to punish fraud and corruption but most importantly the inability to share a common dream for a sustainable European Union. A Union where there is no single member state with unemployment levels of Afghanistan (Greece, Spain are flirting with 30%); A Union where young people will be able to live and grow inside their own country without the need to migrate.

By the time the first thief goes to jail for 5 years for stealing EU money, I only hope that the European citizen understands fully the power she possesses with one single vote.

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