Danish politicians must learn from Qatargate and solve our blind spots for corruption. Otherwise we risk a similar Danish scandal, writes corruption researcher Morten Koch Andersen.
When Qatargate hit the European Parliament, it put corruption on the agenda for a short period. Shortly after the case unfolded in the European media, the speaker of the parliament, Roberta Metsola, presented a catalog of initiatives to prevent corruption.
Initiatives that set a framework for the politicians’ options for action as public representatives with entrusted responsibility towards the population, the parties they are elected for and the democratic system in which they act. It is an attempt to regulate the intersection between the private and the public – between the members of parliament’s own interests , their individual circumstances, the system in which they act and the collective of citizens for whom they make decisions.
Corruption undermines democracy
It is against this background that Roberta Metsola concludes that the case was an attack on parliament and European democracy. In other words, that the corruption in the parliament not only risked undermining the people’s trust in the parliamentarians but also the European democratic community.
She presented the initiatives at the same time that the corruption case continues to unfold in the media and contains an almost cinematic caricature of corruption, where suitcases of banknotes are exchanged for concrete services – promoting the interests of third country states in parliament. According to the indictment, the politicians were paid to mitigate criticism and promote a positive image on behalf of repressive and undemocratic states.
Neither the first nor the last time
Despite the dramatic aspect, the case is not unique. It is not the first or last time there is corruption in parliament. But perhaps rarely so spectacular in execution and bordering on the amateurish. Regardless of the dramatic nature that attracts our attention for a while, the case raises some very central questions about corruption in political systems.
Would the Belgian police have discovered the case and started an investigation if it did not involve states outside the EU? Would the exchanges of the suitcases have been discovered if the parliamentarians’ change of attitude was less significant and public? And more importantly, how can we as voters be convinced that politicians will not be tempted by ‘suitcases’ in the future?
Lack of interest from the world champions
The aftermath of the case has shown a need for regulation and monitoring – a new form of ethical awareness – that can create a better framework for democratic behavior in parliament. At least that’s the hope. The leader of the parliament has proposed 14 points to reform the control and regulation of the practice and behavior of the members of parliament.
These are good initiatives that should act as an inspiration in Denmark. Instead, we see a lack of interest in both the scandal and the initiatives here at home. It seems as if it has no significance in the Danish political reality. But we are also world champions in being the least corrupt country in the world – a title Denmark has just won again.
This ignores, firstly, that the vast majority of legislation is made in the EU and that corruption in parliament directly affects us. Secondly, discussions about risk and prevention are avoided – after all, there are no problems until there are. The fraud case in the National Board of Health and Welfare showed with all clarity that there was room for improvement in the administration, also on the human level, as responsible and attentive management. Is it forgotten? Metsola’s initiatives are not only aimed at finding and punishing corrupt individuals, but at preventing similar cases in the future and thus changing behaviour.
New forms of corruption in Denmark
It is true that there is no systematic corruption in Denmark. But we have corruption, just as we have mistakes. After all, there are people in the system. And like other places, it has a special national or local character that is contextually given. This is why neither the UN nor the OECD work with generic definitions but instead catalogs of corruption practices.
Here at home it is rarely directly monetary but more based on informal exchange of services and benefits. For example, one could address favoritism in hiring as a corrupt act, however difficult to prove or challenge.
But with the increased amount of spin doctors, we may go in the other direction with specifically appointed and politically motivated hiring of public servants. It is as it is, and perhaps mostly an expression of the way in which politics is carried out today, where appearance and image, and control of narratives, are central to party politics, preferably communicated ‘directly’ through social media.
We have blind spots in the practice of corruption.
Regardless, Metsola’s plan means that certain actions that were previously unregulated will now be regulated, and some legal framework will be set for politicians’ behavior if implemented. This means that concrete actions are criminalised, including undocumented contact with representatives of third countries and payment for so-called friendship groups, waiting periods for former members of parliament to prevent revolving door appointments and undocumented lobbying, and possibly a demand for statements of the members of parliament’s financial interests and more.
Denmark is again at the top of Transparency International’s corruption index. It is well. But there are still some challenges we have not yet taken care of. Denmark has constantly been criticized by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body – Greco – for not having waiting periods for politicians, poor transparency in the schemes for party support and no requirements for declarations of politicians’ financial circumstances and interests, as well as for not having a national strategy for anti-corruption.
Greco further criticizes the limited access to information through the legislation – popularly known as the blackout law – which restricts the public’s insight into the workings of the state. Greco concludes that the general knowledge in the Danish state about corruption is simple. It is focused on bribery. Therefore, there is no clear or particularly deep understanding of the many nuances of corruption. We have blind spots in the practice of corruption.
If the policies will avoid a similar case
Parliament only took action after the corruption was discovered, despite knowing there were problems in the system. One can ask whether we in Denmark have to wait for a similar case before action is taken in our parliament. It happened after the fraud in the National Board of Health and Welfare. We could be inspired by the EU and introduce some of the same rules that are expected to apply to EU parliamentarians. It will send a clear signal that politicians care about and take responsibility for their representative duty and for democracy.
If they want to go a step further, they can reform the Public Information Act so that it provides better access to information and protects public servants, and establish a dedicated ethics authority responsible for monitoring and prevention. The measures do not eliminate corruption but set the framework for how we want our democracy to function now and in the future. It only requires political will.
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