Corruption spans various sectors, including abuse of EU funds, money laundering, influence peddling, enabling corruption abroad, and security vulnerabilities. Open government principles offer solutions, emphasising transparency, citizen involvement, and data accessibility. Implementing beneficial ownership registers, lobbying regulations, and protecting civic space are crucial. However, the EU’s response lacks consistency, focusing primarily on transparency. A shift towards open government principles is necessary for effective anti-corruption measures and strengthening democracy.

In May 2023, the European Union (EU) took a significant step in the battle against corruption by proposing a new directive on combating it. The EU has hailed this as a milestone at the national and the European level. The move came in the wake of Qatargate, one of the biggest corruption scandals to hit Brussels, with allegations of elected representatives, officials, and lobbyists being involved with criminal organisations, corruption, and money laundering. Despite the promising moves forward, however, there are major blind spots in the EU’s approach to corruption, and these have significant impacts on the quality of European democracy.

Photograph of a woman smiling.
Maia Koytcheva

The interconnectedness of the EU’s endeavours with the global fight against corruption cannot be overstated. The EU can play a significant role in inspiring, promoting, and enforcing global best practices, norms, and standards. Its Digital Services Act, General Data Protection Regulation, and draft Artificial Intelligence Act are examples of its commitment to lead in setting high standards. It is therefore encouraging to see the EU taking decisive action against corruption and promising to deliver on the commitment made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her 2022 State of the Union address.

As corruption commonly exists across all sectors of government and society, efforts to combat it cannot be effectively and sustainably pursued by governments alone. Neither can they be separated from the need for wider democratic reform that addresses power imbalances and public mistrust. The EU has done too little to anchor its anti-corruption work in the interdependent values of transparency, accountability, and participation.

Five broad challenges are at the heart of EU debates on corruption.

Abuse of EU funds by authoritarians: European and other governments continue to receive EU funding and subsidies despite their ongoing attacks on the rule of law. The use by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of European subsidies to fund a patronage system and enrich his friends and family, protect his political interests, and punish his rivals is only the tip of the iceberg. In March 2022, prosecutors in the Czech Republic announced that former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was facing charges of fraud for allegedly pocketing millions of euros in EU agricultural subsidies.

A destination for money laundering: Criminal organisations in and outside the EU continue to move money through its ports, property, art markets, and other channels. Successful anti–money laundering operations – such as the one in 2022 in Spain, where a major European money launderer was arrested on suspicion of laundering over €200 million ($219 million) through an underground banking system, using shell companies based in the UK and premium brands of vodka to conceal illegal activities – remain few and far between.

Influence peddling and conflicts of interest: The Qatargate scandal and influence-peddling cases – for example, in climate lobbying – have demonstrated that access to decision-makers is unequal and that the wealthy and well-connected benefit from existing opacity. These clear cases of bribery are overlaid onto a situation where donors, often illiberal foreign governments, take advantage of legal loopholes to fund major political candidates in Europe.

Enabling corruption abroad: Companies and individuals regulated by EU institutions may help sustain corruption abroad through illegal or legal bribe payments or by exploiting weak anti-corruption compliance regimes. This has the effect of exacerbating poverty in the name of profit. The Swedish company Ericsson, for example, has previously admitted to engaging in bribery in several countries, leading to a $1 billion settlement with the US Justice Department and a dropped investigation by the Swedish Prosecution Authority because of a lack of evidence that payments had been made in bad faith.

Security vulnerability because of strategic corruption: Russia’s unprovoked full-scale war on Ukraine shows the danger of tolerating kleptocratic governance for too long; in this case, this has led to the most significant war in Europe since the Second World War. Russian oligarchs and other actors have hidden their money, laundered their reputations, and sown disinformation in the EU for decades.

Cooperation among policymakers, civil society, interested citizens, and free and independent media is essential if the EU is to counter these challenges without sacrificing its liberal values and freedoms.

Open government as the solution

There are several blind spots in anti-corruption measures at the EU level as well as globally. The importance of transparency is well established across government and civil society, but what needs to follow it is less clear. Transparency must be used to hold governments to account and enable the participation of all relevant stakeholders. This is a key step towards establishing true dialogue in policymaking and rebuilding public trust, which has steadily declined in recent years.

Promises to end corruption frequently make it into election campaigns and show a pervasive focus on “small democracy” – quick fixes to systemic issues – when what is really needed is democracy beyond the ballot box: democracy that is inclusive and practised daily and consistently.

The EU tends to frame anti-corruption as a technical fix. Rather, it needs a broader open-government approach. Collaboration between government and civil society positively correlates with reforms that are more ambitious and have stronger outcomes. Yet, open-government principles are not applied consistently and rigorously enough in EU policymaking, including when it comes to corruption, where they have the following concrete benefits.

Policy design: The inclusion of non-governmental actors can ensure a wider identification of where corruption may occur and can help identify relevant policies. At the same time, many of these actors have incentives to ensure that the fight against corruption is coherent with respect for fundamental human rights.

Detection and evidence gathering: Journalistic organisations such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, as well as open-source intelligence organisations such as Bellingcat, have played an outsized role in detecting illegal and unethical activities and led to criminal prosecutions. Many such cases may not have been discovered as quickly, if at all, had law-enforcement bodies alone investigated.

Citizen monitoring of public spending: Citizens can play an important role in monitoring public expenditure to improve the delivery of services and desired impact. Citizen auditors’ initiatives can leverage the power of digital tools to monitor public policies and contracting processes, bringing greater oversight and accountability.

Informing the public and extralegal interventions: Certain types of corrupt activities, such as reputation-laundering or information operations, might not explicitly break the law. These cases can be tried in the court of public opinion and, where they affect politicians, can also be punished at the voting booth.

Ensuring sustained implementation: Civil society groups, the private sector, and the media have an interest in maintaining transparency when it comes to data on governance, violations of the law, and the enforcement of regulations. They can help ensure that anti-corruption programmes are maintained across changes in government and staffing in public administration.

Aiding coordination at multiple levels: EU policy operates at multiple levels, and civil society plays a critical role in informing voters about what goes on in Brussels, ensuring that EU rules are transposed and implemented in member states, and identifying incoherence between policy levels.

Open government and anti-corruption cornerstones

The public can play a practical role in ensuring that anti-corruption policy is well designed and implemented. This is true for organised interests, such as civil society organisations (CSOs), trade unions, and industry organisations, as well as individual citizens. An anti-corruption policy that relies only on government action, as is frequently the case, will miss out on the advantages of a multi-sector approach. The key to allowing this wider participation and oversight is the provision of open, high-value data.

Data from 67 countries, including 28 in Europe, reveals significant gaps in data frameworks and availability related to countering political corruption. While most European countries have laws that require the collection of data in anti-corruption areas, few mandate its public availability. And data often lacks accessibility when published, with only a minority of it presented in machine-readable formats, which makes analysis and accountability challenging. Open data on how decisions are made, what officials own, and whose interests they serve can shine a light on political corruption and help make political systems fairer and more inclusive.

Making data available cannot follow the simple principle of more is better, because transparency alone is not enough. Governments increasingly understand that data needs to be useful and used by citizens, businesses, and researchers to generate practical outcomes. Open data can lead to major gains in political accountability, generate economic value, and improve the quality of government services. But structures and relationships must be in place for the release and use of high-quality and trusted data for this to happen.

The EU’s Open Data Directive mandates the publication of machine-readable open data for specific “high value datasets”, such as geospatial information and company ownership, but this notably excludes procurement data, despite public procurement representing 14% of the EU’s gross domestic product. Open contracting and procurement transparency are crucial not only for fighting corruption but also for enhancing the business environment, achieving cost efficiency, and delivering improved services. In some places, open contracting has been a prevalent reform area. While national performance on open contracting varies within the EU, amending the Open Data Directive to include procurement data among high-value datasets can significantly elevate transparency standards.

Some interesting initiatives are taking shape in this area and can be built on. Italy’s government has launched and strengthened OpenCoesione, an innovative online platform that publishes the budgets and expenditure of the EU’s Cohesion Policy and national funds for territorial development in the country as open data. Italy is one of the largest recipients of Cohesion Policy funds, and their distribution had long been a source of corruption and mismanagement, particularly in the country’s south. OpenCoesione is a critical tool for citizens to monitor public spending and identify cases of misuse. As of 2022, the portal included information on nearly 1.8 million projects with €107 billion ($117 billion) in funding. Citizens are encouraged to use this information through a civic hackathon that coordinates journalists, civil society, and data scientists to use the data. High-school students have also been targeted through competitions encouraging them to monitor public spending on local projects.

As Ukraine gradually moves towards the EU, current member states should draw from its experiences in anti-corruption. Here, significant progress has been made in open data since 2014 through initiatives like ProZorro and DoZorro, online platforms that are now used by large numbers of citizens, municipalities and CSOs to identify violations in have opened up the procurement processes. , enhancing transparency and fostering healthy competition. With around two dozen Ukrainian CSOs involved in procurement monitoring, more than 40 municipalities using these tools, and over 7,000 citizens using advanced business intelligence tools, the two platforms have identified violations in 30,014 tenders worth an estimated $4 billion. This has not only saved money but also built trust and promoted fair competition among government suppliers.

ProZorro has expanded to support wartime procurement by offering a catalogue of over 100 humanitarian goods categories. Local and state authorities, military and civil administrations, and humanitarian organisations can easily find suppliers through the platform, leveraging the established trust between citizens, civil society, and the government. These platforms have thrived because of their commitment to open-government principles, where government-held information is accessible to civil society, the private sector, and citizens, and because of the presence of a government that listens and engages effectively.

Curtailing money laundering

The Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, the FinCEN Files, and the Pandora Papers have accelerated interest in beneficial ownership transparency reform as an important tool to prevent corruption and money laundering. Collecting and publicly disclosing company beneficial ownership data can help reveal money laundering, conflicts of interest, improperly awarded government contracts, and tax evasion. Knowing who ultimately owns or benefits from a company or property can also help identify responsibility for other violations of law, such as environmental or employment rules.

The EU needs to learn from others in this field. Nigeria provides an excellent example. It publishes company beneficial ownership data in a free, public register following Open Ownership’s Beneficial Ownership Data Standard. The portal is searchable by entity name, entity number, or an individual’s name, and users can view historical information about a company’s beneficial owners. More importantly, Nigeria did not simply establish the register – it also ran sensitisation workshops with civil society, the private sector, the media, and government agencies to inform them about the relevance of the register. Steps like these are crucial in a holistic approach to reform.

Information provided through such registries feeds into several layers of accountability needed to combat corruption, from independent oversight bodies to investigative media and an active civil society. For example, civil society and citizens gain more insight into land claimed by the government, companies, and other actors, enabling people to claim their rights to their land.

The EU’s fifth anti–money laundering directive requires each member state to create and publish a beneficial ownership register. However, it does not define a data standard, which has led to a patchwork of approaches and some poorly accessible registers, despite a mandate that registers should be interconnected. As one of the preferred destinations for laundered assets, the EU can play a role in raising the cost of laundering money into its jurisdictions. This has the benefit of deterring criminal activity and ensuring that Europe’s democracies increasingly represent the will of the voters. Tragically, in November 2022, the EU Court of Justice struck down the directive’s requirement for public access to beneficial ownership registers, granting greater privacy to company owners and threatening the transparency and accountability gains of recent years. It is critical that the EU addresses the ruling by clearly ensuring access for CSOs and journalists, as the court still recognised their legitimate interest in accessing information in the fight against money laundering.

The case of France highlights that registries alone are not enough. Six years after the country began collecting information on the beneficial owners of companies, a third of legal entities have de facto failed to comply with the requirements, without repercussions. In July 2023, Transparency International revealed that more than two-thirds of corporate-owned real estate in France is anonymously held. Further investigation has revealed such properties are linked to alleged money launderers and to politicians accused of corruption abroad. The role of the media and civil society in uncovering such failings is key and underscores the importance of a cross-sector approach that goes beyond simple transparency to include participation and accountability through stakeholder engagement during the implementation of beneficial ownership regimes.

Safeguarding ethical access to decision-makers

Lobbying is an essential component of democracy, as people must be able to talk directly to officials and elected representatives about issues of interest. However, too often the opportunity to influence decision-making is monopolised by those with the resources, political connections, and know-how, leading to decisions being heavily favourable to these vested interests. Lobbying regulations can set standards of conduct and mandate the collection and publication of data, including who lobbyists are, which public officials they meet, and how these meetings may have influenced decision-making.

Many countries are working to include lobbying registers in various parts and at various levels of government. The UK has promised to tighten its lobbying rules following the Greensill scandal and members of parliament breaching rules on paid advocacy. However, it has been revealed that only 21% of EU member states require the collection of lobbying data and only 16% require its publication. This area needs much greater attention at the national and the EU level. Meanwhile, the Qatargate legal case could be falling apart as the member of the European Parliament at the heart of it is launching a legal challenge, arguing that Belgium’s federal police acted illegally by violating her parliamentary immunity, potentially rendering the evidence collected inadmissible in court.

There is also a troubling bias in the EU’s Transparency Register, where CSOs face stricter disclosure requirements, including an obligation to reveal all their funding sources, than other interest groups, such as industry, which only have to produce estimates of their lobbying expenses with no external validation. This places undue scrutiny on CSOs and creates a misleading perception that they exert more influence, when they are actually less represented on the register than corporate entities. There are similar imbalances in transparency at the member-state level, discouraging diverse stakeholder participation and strengthening private-sector interests. To achieve true participation, civic inputs should be on par with political inputs in policymaking.

Creating a transparent lobbying register is one of the major measures to ensure that access to public officials is open, accessible, and ethical. Lobbying data – especially when combined with legislative voting records, transparency in political finance, and strong ethics enforcement – can make the legislative process more accountable to the public interest.

Anti-corruption and fundamental freedoms

Anti-corruption reforms cannot be sustainably implemented in isolation. If they are not accompanied by robust measures to protect civic space – especially the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression – underlying power imbalances will remain. The protection of civic space remains a serious EU blind spot, with the possibility, in the worst cases, of authoritarian governments using anti-corruption measures to stifle opposition and suppress civil society.

Some elements of the EU’s response to Qatargate, particularly those aimed at tackling covert foreign interference, may negatively affect civil society in its work to engage with the EU institutions and promote issues of public interest. Regulating civil society activity should be proportionate, transparent, and independently administered. Furthermore, there is a need to go beyond preventing the degradation of civic space. The EU should comprehensively address calls, including from the Conference on the Future of Europe, to open up its institutions and decision-making to much wider public participation and scrutiny.

The absence of corruption is an essential but not a sufficient ingredient for democracy to flourish. Ultimately, where trust is the challenge, people want more of a say in the decisions that shape their lives. Open governments place citizens at the heart of their work. They allow a greater diversity of stakeholders to observe, inform, and influence policymaking. They do not treat citizens as passive recipients of services; instead, they invite feedback, consult, deliberate, and co-create. This is the foundation on which trust can be rebuilt, with the multifaceted struggle against corruption functioning as scaffolding and key support.

It is vital to adapt global norms to national reforms. European governments need to focus on developing or enhancing comprehensive anti-corruption strategies that cover beneficial ownership, open contracting, political finance, lobbying, and extractive industry transparency.

As the EU’s ambition is to fight corruption beyond its borders, it is crucial that open government norms spread further within the union as well as outside it. Innovative reforms and approaches based on transparency, accountability, and participation should take hold across governments at all levels to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen democracy. Realising these goals requires political leadership and a broader cadre of open-government champions across all government branches and levels, to offer an alternative to the trend of declining democracy and closed governance.

In sum, for all the EU’s focus on anti-corruption, open-government principles are not being applied consistently and rigorously in the union. Too often, the EU institutions and member states stop at transparency, and in some cases, even that baseline is not reached. An approach based more on open government and participation is needed to correct this blind spot in EU democracy and anti-corruption efforts.

Author

Mai Koytcheva is a Senior Project Officer at Open Government Partnership, responsible for ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of the Country Support team, leading on key operational and project management projects, as well as supporting the Chief, Country Support.

Maia joined OGP in May 2019, following a number of positions both in the private and public sector. She worked for a communications agency in Berlin prior to starting at OGP, as well as in Nairobi, Kenya, as Key Account Manager for an e-commerce start up. Her work in the private sector was preceded by positions for the Berlin Think Tank Das Progressive Zentrum, the European External Action Service in Brussels and a Berlin Senate Department.

Maia holds a BA in European Studies and Modern Languages from the University of Bath and MA in International Relations from King’s College London.

The author thanks Joseph Foti and Paul Braithwaite for their contributions.