Modernising the EU Anti-Corruption Framework

Modernising the EU Anti-Corruption Framework

On 3 May 2023, the European Union Commission acted firmly to combat corruption in the EU and globally, fulfilling President von der Leyen’s pledge from her 2022 State of the Union address. In the address, she revealed plans to refresh the EU’s anti-corruption legislative framework for enhanced prevention and handling of corruption throughout the European Union. The President further underscored the urgency for resolute action against corruption.

Corruption greatly undermines society, democracy, the economy and individuals. It weakens institutions, reducing credibility and the ability to provide public policies and services. It facilitates organised crime and foreign interference. Thwarting corruption is crucial to protect EU values, policy effectiveness, rule of law and trust in governance.

Quantifying corruption is challenging, but it’s believed to cost the EU economy at least €120 billion yearly. Its detrimental effects hinder worldwide efforts for good governance, prosperity, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. While global corruption indices rank many EU countries among the least corrupt, corruption remains a primary concern for EU citizens. 2022 Eurobarometer data showed nearly seven in ten Europeans (68%) perceived corruption as rampant in their country, with only 31% believing their government’s anti-corruption efforts effective.

The Proposals

The anti-corruption proposals mark a significant step in combatting corruption nationally and across the EU. The Commission is enhancing action: building upon existing measures, bolstering the integration of corruption prevention in EU policies and programmes, and actively backing Member States’ development of robust anti-corruption policies and laws. The Commission also uses its annual Rule of Law Report cycle to monitor national anti-corruption progress, pinpoint challenges, and recommend actions to Member states.

The proposals include new, stronger rules that criminalise corruption offences and harmonise penalties EU-wide. They also feature a High Representative’s suggestion, backed by the Commission, to form a dedicated Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) sanctions regime targeting severe global corruption. These measures prioritise prevention and integrity cultivation, while also fortifying enforcement tools. The following paragraphs outline the key elements of the proposals.

Key elements of the proposals:

I. Communication on the fight against corruption

In a Joint Communication, the Commission and the High Representative consolidate existing efforts and introduce new strategies and tools at EU and Member State level, committing to global corruption tackling. An EU anti-corruption network will unite law enforcement, public authorities, practitioners, civil society and other stakeholders, acting as a catalyst for corruption prevention across the EU and generating best practices and practical guidance. A vital role of this Network will be supporting the Commission in identifying common high-corruption-risk areas across the EU. The Network’s work will contribute to an EU anti-corruption strategy, developed in consultation with the European Parliament and the Council, to optimise the impact and coherence of EU actions.

There’s zero tolerance for corruption within EU institutions. The Communication outlines the ethical, integrity and transparency rules preventing corruption within these institutions. This framework should not only be rigorously and consistently applied, but also continually updated.

II. Stronger rules to fight corruption

‘The Commission proposes a new Directive to combat corruption, modernising the existing EU anti-corruption legal framework by:

A. Preventing corruption and fostering integrity

– Elevating corruption awareness through information campaigns, research and educational programmes to mitigate corruption risks and offences.

– Ensuring the public sector meets the highest standards by requiring Member States to enact effective rules for public access to relevant information, managing conflicts of interest in the public sector, verifying public officials’ assets, and regulating private-public sector interaction.

– Establishing specialised anti-corruption bodies and providing sufficient resources and training for authorities tasked with preventing and combating corruption.

B. One legal act encompassing all corruption offences and sanctions

– Standardising definitions of criminal offences, prosecuted as corruption, to include not only bribery, but also misappropriation, influence trading, function abuse, and obstruction of justice and illicit enrichment related to corruption offences. The proposal mandates all offences under the United Nations Convention against Corruption under EU law and merges public and private sector corruption.

– Elevates the severity of criminal sanctions for both natural and legal entities and harmonises aggravating and mitigating factors.

C. Guaranteeing effective investigations and prosecution of corruption

– Investigative tools: Member States must equip law enforcement and prosecutors with suitable tools to combat corruption.

– Immunity or privileges: Member States must ensure that privileges and immunity can be lifted amid corruption investigations via a legally pre-established, effective and transparent process, promptly.

– Introducing baseline rules on the statute of limitation to secure adequate time for bringing corruption offences to justice.

III. Enhancing the CFSP sanctions toolkit to address serious corruption acts

EU sanctions aid in realising pivotal CSFP goals, such as maintaining peace, reinforcing international security, and supporting democracy, international law and human rights. Today’s proposal from the High Representative, endorsed by the Commission, enables the EU to tackle severe acts of corruption globally, regardless of location. It supplements and strengthens EU’s internal and external anti-corruption mechanisms, demonstrating the EU’s resolve to utilise any tools, including CFSP sanctions, to combat corruption.

Next Steps

The proposed Directive to combat corruption must be negotiated and adopted by the European Parliament and the Council to become EU law. The suggested new framework of CFSP sanctions targeting corruption requires Council discussion and adoption. With this proposal, the EU updates the current, disjointed, pre-Lisbon EU level corruption framework and implements obligations under the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). However, until the new proposed Directive is formally adopted by the co-legislators, the primary anti-corruption legislation remains:

– The 1997 Convention on fighting corruption                 

This Convention targets corruption involving officials of the EU or its member states. It aims to deter, detect, and punish corruption by defining corruption offences and stipulating the corresponding criminal sanctions. The Convention demands states ensure corrupt practices involving their officials are criminal offences under domestic law, fostering a comprehensive, cooperative approach to combating corruption across the European Union.

The 2003 Council Framework Decision on combating corruption in the private sector

The 2003 Decision is aimed at combating corruption in the private sector. It requires all EU member states to treat corruption in the private sector as a criminal offence under their national laws. The Framework defines corrupt practices and prescribes suitable sanctions, striving to harmonise anti-corruption legislation across the EU, and thus ensuring a united and effective response to corruption in private sector dealings.

– The 2008 Council Decision 2008/852/JHA

The 2008 Decision established a contact-point network against corruption. This network is designed to improve cooperation between EU member states in their efforts to prevent and combat corruption. It enables exchange of information, experience and best practices among its contact points, thereby fostering a unified, effective approach to tackling corruption across the European Union. The network promotes transparency, information sharing and enhanced multinational collaboration.

The 2023 proposals aim to tackle corruption both within the EU and globally, and demonstrate the EU’s strong commitment to fight corruption in all its forms. However, before these become EU law, they must be negotiated and adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The timeline for this process can vary, but it typically takes between one and two years. When it is adopted, the 1997 Convention and the 2003 Council Framework decision will be replaced by the new Directive, for those EU Member States bound by the new Directive.

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