Even well-informed Americans are unlikely to know much about the level of corruption prevalent within the member states of the European Union (EU). A fascinating article in the London Review of Books by UCLA professor Perry Anderson opens with a tour de force run-through of the high crimes and misdemeanors featuring recent heads of state and heads of government across Europe.
Helmut Kohl of Germany and Jacques Chirac of France, the two most powerful European politicians of their era, were guilty of amassing slush funds and embezzlement, yet neither was ever punished. Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder cut a billion Euro deal with Russia’s Gazprom shortly before leaving politics and joining Gazprom’s board at a salary higher than he was receiving as Germany’s chancellor. Two German presidents, Horst Kohler and Christian Wulff, have recently been forced to resign, one for corruption, while two cabinet ministers have stepped down for falsifying their educational credentials.
Former french president Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly took a €50 million “loan” from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to help finance his election bid, and his party has more recently admitted to “anomalies” in the funding of its 2012 campaign. His finance minister Christine Lagarde, currently head of the International Monetary Fund, has been investigated for granting €420 million (€1 = $1.36) to a convicted felon friend of Sarkozy. Current French president Francois Hollande also had some unsavory connections. He reportedly would tryst with his actress mistress in the apartment owned by the girlfriend of a Corsican criminal who was killed during a gun battle last year.
In Britain Tony Blair cozied up to Rebekah Brooks of News of the World, advising her how to beat the five charges of criminal conspiracy against her, advice modeled on his own government’s questionable handling of an investigation into the death of an Iraq war whistleblower. Blair, who in Clintonesque fashion has become a very rich man indeed since leaving office, regularly panders to anyone who has money, including president Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, whose “achievements are wonderful.”
Ireland’s Bernie Ahern made €400,000 disappear before taking office and voting himself the highest salary of any world leader. He left office a year later, under attack for his fiscal mismanagement. Mariano Rajoy of Spain meanwhile took kickbacks totaling a quarter of a million Euros, and his party treasurer Luis Barcenas is currently under arrest while an investigation continues to determine the source of €22 million sitting in undeclared Swiss bank accounts. Rajoy has encouraged Barcenas to “Stay strong” but 85 percent of the Spanish public believes the Prime Minister is lying when he denies any knowledge of the money.
Accountability for corruption and fraud is rare, permitting elites to operate in a virtual no-rules environment. As Anderson notes, “Like bankers, leading politicians do not go to prison.” Only one Eurozone political leader has actually been imprisoned, Greek government minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, who has been sentenced to 20 years for assorted shakedowns and money laundering. Across the Aegean, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still in power even after discussing with his son how to hide some tens of millions of dollars obtained from kickbacks. Erdogan fired the policemen and prosecutors who were looking into the matter. A little farther to the south, in Israel, the ex-president Moshe Katsav was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for rape, while former prime minister Ehud Olmert received six years for bribery. Nearly every other Israeli head of state and head of government in the past 20 years has been investigated for corruption or fraud, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A European Commission report on corruption in the Union estimated that it amounts to €120 billion annually, a sum the report described as “breathtaking” while also expressing the view that the true figure is “probably much higher.” The report only covered the member states, conveniently ignoring the massive corruption and fraud in the EU bureaucracy itself, demonstrating once again that accountability only applies to someone else.
After making his slam dunk, Anderson goes on to analyze in detail Italian politics from the 1970s until the present to demonstrate just how corruption takes hold of a political system and delegitimizes it, producing voter apathy, domination of legislatures, and strengthening of executive rule by often unelected elites. Pervasive corruption breeds public indifference and acquiescence to forms of behavior that would otherwise be considered abhorrent, note particularly the extracurricular antics of recently convicted tax evader and three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi used his office and existing legislative machinery to block prosecution of himself while also exploiting his media empire to shape an essentially false narrative of his successes as head of government. He is now doing community service.
As I knew many of the Italian politicians Anderson cites, some on a personal basis, from my own time in the Eternal City in the 1970s and 1980s, I found the analysis fascinating while the dissection of Italy’s current leaders’ inability to lead offers significant new insights into the persistence of the Italian malaise. Is genuine reform of a system that is completely broken possible? Probably not.
And Anderson concludes that the Italian experience is far from unique, that the country’s style of governance is becoming the norm in Europe: “Italy is not an anomaly within Europe. It is much closer to a concentrate of it.” While he does not explore the rise of right-wing parties in recent elections, one might well speculate that the renascent nationalism that they offer is both a rebuke to the suffocating bureaucracy of the EU and a warning about the public’s growing intolerance of the corrupt politicians from the political parties that have both dominated and alternated in power in nearly every European country since the Second World War.
But is the problem only European? Most Americans probably think of corruption as a cop in a third-world country demanding a bribe in lieu of issuing a parking ticket. Real corruption is actually much more damaging in the U.S. than elsewhere because it involves far larger sums and is frequently hidden behind a smokescreen of law. The United States in fact exhibits some of the worst features of Euro corruption with a few unique wrinkles of its own. While Italy might well be a paradigm for blatant political corruption in all its forms, and the EU more generally speaking might well be the heir apparent to that distinction, it is nevertheless interesting to note that politicians in a number of countries cited by Anderson have actually been investigated and even convicted of crimes, something that occurs rarely in the U.S., where prison is seemingly limited to Illinois governors whose flamboyant misdemeanors would even make Boss Tweed blush. Which is not to say that prosecution for malfeasance does not take place among U.S. government officials, but it is generally limited to the small fry.
More than in Europe if only because it has been going on longer, money has corrupted every aspect of government at every level in the United States, creating a system in which laws are passed to make various forms of corruption legal. What is “legal” becomes a substitute for what is “responsible or accountable” even though they are not the same, meaning that the interaction of government with its citizenry is frequently framed purely in terms of what people are and are not allowed to do. The revolving door of former government officials that feeds into the perfectly legal lobbying system that prevails in the U.S. and nowhere else in the world is all part of a huge industry. Many would regard lobbying as the worst possible case of institutionalized corruption, as it operates largely behind closed doors to serve special interests that in turn profit from the process, and it does little or nothing for the broader public interest.
The rot starts with the bipartisan dominance of what passes for political process in the United States. The vetting procedure managed by the two parties and their batteries of lawyers coupled with large cash flows from special interests means that challenging the status quo is well-nigh impossible. So if you want to know why Washington pursues policies that do not serve any conceivable national interests, you only have to look at the bottom level where the voter has, in reality, no choice because he is only offered a cookie cutter politician.
The failure of the Tea Party movement perfectly illustrates the problem. Voters eventually became so upset with the status quo that they lashed out and organized to change things. In the case of the Tea Party, they initially demanded smaller, more responsible government, constitutionalism, and an end to America’s perpetual wars, surely all positive objectives. So what happened? The Tea Party was hijacked as its leadership came to be defined by folks like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachmann, and Marco Rubio. Ron Paul’s noninterventionist legacy was conveniently forgotten and replaced by traditional GOP across-the-board bellicosity, while small and constitutional government became focused largely on two issues, Obamacare and guns. When the Tea Party weakened because it no longer stood for anything, the GOP establishment quickly moved to eliminate it.
It is depressing to have to acknowledge that corruption in government is so accepted even in politically advanced nations that those who engage in it are rarely held accountable in any serious way. It is as if it is the agreed on price of doing business, but in reality it distorts critical decision making, creates inequality, and weakens the social cohesion that enables most nations to function. A largely alienated citizenry will find it difficult to rally round the flag, so to speak, when a genuine national emergency develops. Professor Anderson describes the trend as “The Italian Disaster,” but in reality it is a disaster for all of us.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.