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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 18:17 GMT
Analysis: How corrupt is Europe?
French President Jacques Chirac
Chirac is not the only European leader to face corruption claims
By the BBC's European affairs analyst William Horsley

The resignation of a French judge who had been investigating President Chirac has focused attention on corruption claims there - but it is not only France where senior political figures have found themselves accused of wrongdoing.

Across western and eastern Europe, other upholders of the law have also found themselves accused of being lawbreakers. In some cases, suspicion has turned to proved fact.

In France, Judge Eric Halphen's investigation into President Chirac has led the intelligently critical public to suspect that systematic corruption is, or at least was, widespread in French politics.


An independent organisation which produced an annual 'corruption index' reckons that Italy is more corrupt than the African state of Botswana, and Greece is more corrupt than Namibia

That suspicion was strengthened by the case of former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, who last year was jailed for accepting bribes from the formerly state-owned Elf oil company.

The lessons from France are ambiguous.

On one hand, judges and prosecutors have become much bolder than they were 10 years ago in raising charges against the rich and powerful, and sometimes they succeed in making convictions stick.

On the other hand, experts say that the political system is still marred by considerable corruption at both the local and national level.

Silvio Berlusconi
Italy's Berlusconi is accused of trying to protect himself
Across the rest of Europe, the picture is mixed.

Transparency International, an independent organisation which produced an annual "corruption index" reckons that Italy is more corrupt than the African state of Botswana, and Greece is more corrupt than Namibia. Such judgments are hard to prove.

In Italy, senior judges are openly accusing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of interfering with the workings of the courts to try to escape being convicted himself in three ongoing corruption trials.

The judges object to attempts by the justice minister to stop a trial in Milan, where Mr Berlusconi stands accused of bribing judges in a business takeover case, by removing one of the trial judges from the case.


The independent observer is likely to conclude that the German justice system gives special rights to the very powerful

Italy's political opposition is also mounting a challenge to a new law which makes it harder to use incriminating evidence from Switzerland or other foreign countries in fraud cases - a change which seems to go against the declared policy of the European Union to improve cross-border justice co-operation.

Mr Berlusconi himself accuses some judges of conducting a personal vendetta against him.

Kohl's slush funds

As in France, observers are left with the impression that the law can all too easily be manipulated for political purposes.

In Germany, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl blatantly behaved as if he were above the law by admitting he had received unlawful political donations for many years, but refusing to give details to investigating prosecutors.

Mr Kohl had to pay a heavy fine for breaking the law, but he denied corruption, claiming that he had used the "slush funds" to support local branches of his party, the Christian Democratic Union, and not for personal gain.

Helmut Kohl
Germany's Kohl admitted involvement in secret funds
The facts were never independently verified because the court in Bonn decided that the national interest would not be served by pursuing them further.

Once again, the independent observer is likely to conclude that the German justice system gives special rights to the very powerful.

Transparency International has highlighted what it says are disturbingly high levels of corruption in most of the central and east European states.

This phenomenon is closely linked to the large-scale process of privatising former national enterprises in countries in "transition" to a market economy.


Each country has its own pattern of grey or "black" business, and its own level of tolerance to corruption

In the case, for example, of the Czech Republic, the lack of transparency during the early waves of privatisation helped to bring down one government (headed by then premier Vaclav Klaus) three years ago.

The current Czech Government, headed by Milos Zeman, has also struggled to satisfy international investors that the rules are being applied fairly to all during the sell-off of state-run energy concerns.

Each country has its own pattern of grey or "black" business, and its own level of tolerance to corruption.

The only true safeguard against corruption is to remove the opportunity for it. And no reliable way of doing that has so far been invented.

See also:

14 Jan 02 | Europe
Chirac judge claims sabotage
04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
26 Jul 01 | Europe
Another setback for Chirac
18 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac escapes sleaze questions
14 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac hits back at critics
28 Sep 00 | Europe
Cheques, lies and videotape
12 Jul 01 | Media reports
Chirac's 'house on fire'
20 Jul 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
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