Anna van Densky. OPINION. This week Brussels institutional freedom of speech reached a new low, when the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has been confronted with the demands of withdrawing his comments on corruption in Italy. During a public exchange of views, the top EU executive referred to corruption and insufficient efforts as the key obstacles, blocking the development of the poorest regions in the south of Apennines peninsula.
“Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work; less corruption; seriousness,” Juncker said. “We will help them as we always did. But don’t play this game of loading with responsibility the EU. A country is a country, a nation is a nation. Countries first, Europe second”. These words caused the whirlwind of emotions from newly endorsed vice-prime minister Matteo Salvini, numerous political personalities, and even the president of the European Parliament (from Italian origin) Antonio Tajani, – all of them indignant about Juncker referring to the well-established facts. Yes, objectively speaking, there is a huge problem of corruption in Italy, regarded as plague first of all by the Italians themselves.
According to the official statistics corruption, including political one, remains a major challenge, particularly in southern Italy, affecting Calabria, Campina, and Sicily, where citizens suffer from its consequences at most. Transparency International annual reports indicate Italy has been consistently assessed as one of the most corrupt countries in the Eurozone. While 2017 Corruption Perception Index ranks Italy 54th place out of 180 countries. Scoring on a par with Montenegro, Senegal and South Africa. Yearly the crime of corruption causes Italians a damage of €60 billion .
However an attempt to smother Juncker with ‘politically correct’ banning from public debate the tensions in eurozone is not a unique episode in European political life, it is a chronic syndrome. A year ago then the chair of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem came under the fire for his criticism of abuse of solidarity by heavily indebted countries of the EU south. The degree of indignation had amounted to demands of resignation put forward by Spain and Portugal. However the most striking in rude tone was the comment from Italy: “He has missed a perfect opportunity to shut up,” former Italian Socialist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wrote in a Facebook post. “The sooner he goes, the better.”
The entire calamity was caused by the Dutchman remarks to a German newspaper: “As a social democrat, I think that solidarity is extremely important. But whoever benefits also has duties,” he added. “I can’t spend all my money on booze and women and then ask for your support.” It was the allegory implied to illustrate the role of corruption and tax evasion in ongoing Greek financial crisis that caused the indignation, not the depressing reality. The Transparency International estimated Greek tax evasion figures between €11 – €16 billion per annum ‘not collectable’, and the corruption also played ‘massive role’ in an outbreak of financial crisis. Dijsselbloem survived the criticism, so did his corrupt foes.
One year later the situation of tensions between the north and south of eurozone reflected in Dijsselbloem polemics has not improved in a meaningful way, but instead of fighting grim realities of corruption, the Italian politicians almost unanimously prefer to put some makeup on a face touched by leprosy, while the northern societies reject to accept the trick, requesting accountability. Dijsselbloem then, and Juncker now said what millions of taxpayers in the north of Europe know and think, and silencing them one guarantees the rising pressure of their discontent, because they are the ones to endorse the checks.
Obviously, the expected contemporary modus operandi of the presidents of European institutions, reserving them a role of modern royals – smiling to cameras and shaking hands, plus signing big checks for charity – will not please the EU taxpayers from the northern countries. Being the donors to the southern economies, where a portion of their transfers is systematically disappearing in the pockets of the corrupt, they are increasingly concerned about the profile of the recipients of their funds.
With the upcoming departure of the UK, the second net contributor to the EU budget, the monitoring of funds transferred from donors to recipients in the bloc will be much more keen. It is possible to smother the heads of the EU institutions by ‘politically correct’ reserving them a public role of mute modern royals, but it will hit back, undermining the trust in EU institutions, unable to defend the European values.
“Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est pas d’éloge flatteur”, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (“Where there is no freedom of blaming, there can be no genuine praise”).
Bruxelles, 3 june 2018