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Stark assessment of corruption within Europe's local and regional administrations  
Closer scrutiny, better leadership and greater clarity about unacceptable types of conduct will be needed in order to curb the significant levels of corruption in local and regional administrations across the European Union, politicians and experts said at a conference co-organised by the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe focused on "The role of local and regional authorities in preventing corruption and promoting good governance". They also issued warnings about the scale of corruption, its shifting nature and its ability to seize on new opportunities, including migration. The conference, which was held on 28 February, also heard questions raised the EU's commitment to monitoring corruption, together with specific warnings about the in Romania and Serbia.
 
Participants at the conference, which was held days before the European Commission launched a consultation on whistle-blowing, said that while Europe has less of a corruption problem than other parts of the world, corruption remains common and is putting some Europeans in the position of feeling obliged to pay bribes to obtain adequate health care, for example.  Carl Dolan from Transparency International said that in six EU countries – Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Romania – public perceptions of corruption were at levels typically associated with "endemic corruption", while a European Commission survey in 2014 identified problems at the local and regional level as being particularly pronounced in a range of western European states. Irina Stefuriuc of the European Commission noted significant differences within individual states, with the "highest cross-regional variations…in countries which perform worst on good governance". Patrick Von Maravić of the University of Alberta noted that the increased role of private companies in providing public services was "shifting the corruption risks".

Laura Ferrara (IT/EFDD), the European Parliament's rapporteur on corruption, noted that corruption and organised crime are "very closely linked", a characteristic that is "particularly visible at the local level". She continued: "Corruption tends to adapt itself to any new trend, including migration flows. We have seen how organised crime has entered reception centres, and has distorted public procurement processes for reception centres."

Weaker checks also make the local and regional level more vulnerable, with public procurement a particularly persistent source of problems. Olga Savran from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cited Georgia as an example, saying that it is "a country that has done a lot of excellent work on corruption, but there remain lots of holes in public procurement". The corrosive effects also affect voting patterns. "Corruption is one of the factors that make sure the system is rigged and why people see it as rigged," said Mr Dolan.

Gudrun Mosler-Törnström (AT/PES), President of the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, welcomed changes that mean that "in many European countries, local authorities are managing a bigger and bigger share of public expenditure", but she warned that "local and regional authorities have seen their budgets and competences increase without a corresponding improvement in control and disciplinary procedures. If we witness an increase in corruption at the local level, then the principle of decentralisation could be threatened."

Examples of the impact of corruption were provided by Stevan Dojcinović from the KRIK network of investigative journalists in Serbia and by Laura Stefan, a former official in Romania's justice ministry. Mr Dojcinović warned that the Serbian government is applying a "subtle" form of censorship, "mainly through financial measures" such as exerting pressure on public and private companies to withhold advertising, with the result that "criticism of the government has really dropped in recent years". It is now "impossible" to get investigative articles published in the print media, he said. Ms Stefan warned that corruption in local and regional administrations in Romania is "systemic" in nature, and presented a study of the distribution of money from a regional fund that demonstrated that the allocation of money is closely correlated with the electoral cycle and who holds power. "What we see is that mayor after mayor after mayor behaves in the same way," she said, adding: "you cannot put on the shoulders of the criminal-justice system the job of reforming the country."

Herwig Van Staa (AT/EPP), president of the Tyrol region and long-time member both of the CoR and the Congress of the Council of Europe, said "we need to be stricter and more consistent" in addressing corruption among parliamentarians. Corruption is "prevalent" at the local level, he said, and "if [local and regional administrations] are part of the problem, they are also partly responsible for solving these problems".

A case study of local responses was provided by the deputy mayor of Kiev, Volodymyr Prokopiv, whose city is following a roadmap for combatting corruption that was approved by the Council of Europe's Congress of the Local and Regional Authorities and partly developed with the Council of Europe's support. The initiatives are beginning to bear fruit, he said, with foreign investors gaining confidence from measures such as a digital public-procurement system and citizens using online enrolment with doctors and engaging in participatory budgeting.

Ideas that were aired ranged from more training for politicians and public officials, more EU funding for investigative journalism and increased monitoring to calls for a European prosecutor and a life-long ban on corrupted politicians and officials holding public office. Mr Dolan of Transparency International said that the European Commission should resume publication of a periodic anti-corruption report, saying that "we should ask hard questions about why the European Commission considers it no longer necessary to monitor corruption and issue recommendations". The report has been replaced by work within the EU's European Semester on the coordination of economic policy, where, he said, the focus is on best practice. 

The conference particularly considered the role of establishing norms, with a session focused on codes of conduct for local and public administrations. "We need an acquis communitaire for a devolved local and regional administrative structure," argued Dr Von Maravić, who is also chairman of the advisory group on revising the code of conduct adopted by the Council of Europe's Congress in 1999. He identified codification of rules on whistle-blowing as one of the "major challenges". On 3 March, the European Commission began a three-month public consultation focused on protection for whistle-blowers. A number of contributors at the conference noted that protections against abuse also need to be developed.

The need for rules of behaviour to be internalised was stressed repeatedly. "A code is nothing; coding is everything," said Gjalt De Graaf of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in a comment echoed by others.

Similarly, the need for leadership and for integrity was a recurrent theme. "Good leadership includes moral leadership," said Dr De Graaf, while Dr Von Maravić noted that "many cases of corruption can be explained with the argument that if they at the top allow themselves a car and they cut my bonus, then I am entitled to something".

Andreas Galster (DE/EPP), mayor of Baiersdorf in Germany, said: "As a mayor, I know that it is important to have rules and procedures in place. You need to lead by example, and you need to pay particular attention to public services. It starts with small things."

Markku Markkula (FI/EPP), President of the CoR, and Karl-Heinz Lambertz (BE/PES), First Vice-President of the CoR, both spoke at the conference, emphasising the CoR's commitment to supporting the efforts of local and regional authorities to curb corruption, including through showcasing examples of good practice and encouraging cooperation between regions and cities across the EU and in its neighbourhood.

The CoR is the EU's political assembly for local and regional politicians. It has a consultative role in the EU's policymaking The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is the assembly for local governments in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, the watchdog of Europe's fundamental rights.