Corruption in Europe – What do people really think?

The Crime and Culture research project explored the perceptions of corruption held by six societal groups: politicians, the judiciary, police, media, the business world and civil society groups, such as anti-corruption NGOs. Its findings indicate that policies to address corruption must be adapted to fit socio-cultural conditions and perceptions of corruption.

Corruption is a considerable issue for European integration and enlargement. It is a threat to the EU’s financial interests and to its core principles of social order. Policies to prevent corruption have tended to rely on legislation or police force measures without much investigation as to how society views corruption.

To explore perceptions of corruption, the Crime and Culture project analysed relevant documents and conducted interviews in seven countries that were grouped into three clusters:

Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia

These countries are all former communist states and there is a tendency for corruption to be perceived as embedded and therefore taken for granted. The perception of a ‘culture of corruption’ in Romania is sustained by the awareness of a ‘mafia ensemble’ that involves almost everyone from politicians to judges to businessmen, citizens and NGOs. Anti-corruption legislation is viewed to have little direct impact and the judiciary is perceived to be unwilling to bring corruption cases to an end.

The perception of corruption in Bulgaria is more dependent on the belief that the government is irresponsible and political parties are major vehicles of corruption. Whilst in Croatia it is the interconnections between business, politics and the judiciary that are perceived to be the source of corruption. The perceptions in all three countries are rooted in two processes: the lack of distinction between petty and large-scale corruption, and the residual effects of the transition from a post-communist regime. In Croatia, the transition impacts are aggravated by the influence of the war when organised crime came to the fore.

To combat views of corruption in these countries the perceived links between politics, business and the judiciary need to be broken. This could be done by cultivating a stronger image of effectiveness within the judiciary, and dissuading political parties from using anticorruption rhetoric as a political instrument since this doesn’t address the issue and compounds perceptions that corruption is embedded in society. In addition, the media could stop exaggerating corruption affairs as this reinforces the public perception that corruption is a fact of life.

Greece and Turkey

These two countries share a paternalistic type of government where political power is more top-down and there is little citizen participation. Similar to the previous three states, corruption is perceived as being widespread but it is more accepted in Turkey than in Greece. In Greece, corruption is accounted for as a form of ‘survival strategy’ in the face of the disappearance of traditional social bonds. In Turkey, corruption and bribery are taken for granted as a way to function in daily life. In both countries, patronage and nepotism are perceived as a legitimate way to deal with state machinery.

The project recommends that both countries develop a strategy to overcome the deep lack of trust between government and citizens, to counteract the notion that corruption is a legitimate means to deal with issues in this area. This would include reforming the political systems to lessen the paternalistic nature of government since the core element that boosts corruption in both countries is located within the political sphere. Political reforms would help to increase trust between government and citizens by encouraging enhanced citizen participation in political processes.

Germany and the UK

In these Western European countries, petty corruption is perceived to be virtually non-existent and considered to be under control. This fosters a perception that corruption does not exist. However, there is growing awareness of so-called ‘structural corruption’ within politics and large businesses where corruption is embedded and generally accepted within the institutional structure, such as the recent expenses scandal amongst politicians in the UK. Although this has been hidden for some time it is now appearing more frequently. To prevent its acceptance or the complacent belief that it is a ‘one-off’, it must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Structural corruption could be tackled by moving away from the national economic orientation prevalent in both countries toward a more social attitude of responsibility, where the focus of policies and business is shifted away from purely financial goals towards contributing to the welfare of society. Alongside this could be the development of legislation that favours collective/corporate liability instead of allocating blame to individuals so that the actual ‘structure’ in structural corruption is addressed.

European level policy options

Alongside the policy recommendations at a national level, the project made several recommendations to European policy makers:

  • Greater co-ordination of anti-corruption measures with other international organisations, such as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), and greater co-ordination of existing databases, such as EUROSTAT, to enable investigation of corruption.
  • The development of methods to improve co-operation between EU and national jurisdiction, to encourage a more effective control system.
  • Measures to facilitate greater transparency from Member States, especially in public procurement and financial control. This could be done by publishing relevant documents on the internet.
  • Better support for citizen participation in prevention of corruption through instruments such as the Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs), established by the Transparency International National Chapters in a range of countries across Europe. The experience of ALACs shows that citizens are able to take effective action against corruption when they are offered efficient means for doing so

Finally, depending on the specific field of action required, numerous interfaces between national and EU-level anti-corruption strategies exist. In this respect, the coordinating, supportive and monitoring functions of the EU should be emphasised. However, efforts to encourage rule-conforming behaviour are part of a developing learning process. As such, anti-corruption as a prevention strategy is a social educational project which must be seen more as a long-term investment and less as a short-term operation.

Crime and Culture: Crime as a Cultural Problem. The Relevance of Perceptions of Corruption to Crime Prevention. A Comparative Cultural Study in the EU-Candidate States and the EU-States Germany and Greece (duration: 1/1/2006 –31/7/2009) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 - Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Angelos Giannakopoulos,