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EU: Commissioner Worried By Corruption In Candidate States

London, 22 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The outgoing vice president of the European Commission, Leon Brittan, expressed concern on March 19 about high levels of corruption in many of the East and Central European countries seeking EU membership.

Brittan was speaking at a conference in London that focused on the dangers caused by corruption to world trade and investment.

Brittan cited data published last year which ranked 85 countries according to perceptions of the degree of their corruption. Brittan said the fact that many of the EU accession candidates came in the bottom half of the table was "troubling." The statistics came from the private organization Transparency International -- one of the conference organizers.

Ironically, Brittan is one of 20 European Commissioners who resigned en masse this week after criticism of their failure to curb corruption and fraud in EU affairs. But he himself was not criticized in a damning inquiry report and is expected to emerge unscathed. He is one of two British commissioners serving on the EU body.

Brittan told the conference that the problem of corruption -- often involving bribes to government officials or businesspeople -- is a worldwide one, affecting governments, firms and individuals.

The conference heard that corruption distorts the political process, undermines effective and equitable government and the rule of law, and leads to gross inefficiency and higher costs.

Brittan said the world's leading economies are stepping up their fight against corruption, by adopting a new international convention that makes it a crime to bribe officials, and requires signatories to introduce tougher surveillance, sanctions and other measures.

One of the goals is to make the workings of governments, international organizations and companies more transparent.

Brittan said: "Corruption thrives on secrecy so the creation of rules aimed at transparency reduces the scope for corruption."

Britain's Overseas Development Minister Clare Short also addressed the conference and said corruption is a threat to world trade and investment and damages a country's development prospects. She said corruption wastes resources, feeds inefficiency, and leads to poor economic performance.

Short also said that countries that show a determination to root out corruption are much more likely to get foreign investment and development aid. She said countries that do little to tackle the problem will drive foreign investors away.

Short said the Asian economic crisis demonstrated that economic development without transparency, political accountability and equal respect for all citizens is unsustainable. Short argued that in the absence of democratic accountability, "cronyism and corruption flourished."

Short said: "Corruption perverts the political process and undermines effective and equitable government and the rule of law. Let's think for a moment about the Russian people and how disappointed they must be by the market economy and the rule of law, and the way in which corruption in the privatization process has got into their political systems, and really damaged their prospects of improving life for their people."

Short also commented on the findings of the inquiry that forced the EU commissioners to resign this week. She said she was very concerned about the quality of the EU's external assistance programs to other countries -- which she said were "very poor." In particular, she expressed concern about the mismanagement of EU aid earmarked to improve nuclear safety in eastern countries.

"I was not surprised that three of the cases closely examined in the report of the committee of independent experts are of external assistance -- humanitarian aid, assistance to the Mediterranean, and help with nuclear safety in Eastern Europe. The report reveals a serious catalogue of negligence, mismanagement and alleged fraud."

Short said the EU needs to completely overhaul the approval, auditing and financial management of external aid programs.

The one-day London conference was staged jointly by the Royal Institute of International Affairs and two private organizations -- Transparency International (UK) and the Control Risks Group.