Is Europe as corrupt as Europeans think it is?

SlateFebruary 5, 2014 

— Corruption is a difficult thing to quantify, for obvious reasons. Those engaged in it typically aren’t all that desperate to share the extent of their activities. It’s telling that the most widely cited global measure of corruption, Transparency International’s index, is actually a survey of how corrupt citizens perceive their countries to be.

For this reason, I think the European Commission’s new survey on European corruption is a bit more interesting for what it says about citizens’ perceptions. “The extent of the problem in Europe is breathtaking,” said EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom in introducing a report that found that 76 percent of Europeans think that corruption is widespread in their countries. About a quarter of Europeans say they are personally affected by corruption in their lives. About 8 percent say they have experienced or witnessed a case of corruption in the last 12 months.

As you might expect, the results vary dramatically by countries. The report tells us: “The countries where respondents are most likely to think corruption is widespread are Greece (99 percent), Italy (97 percent), Lithuania, Spain and the Czech Republic (95 percent in each).” In Denmark, by contrast, it’s only 10 percent.

That all jibes with what we’d expect from news reports out of those countries, but dig into some of the country-level data and it gets a little stranger. Many people who haven’t actually experienced corruption seem fairly certain that it’s a serious and widespread problem in their countries. For instance:

In the case of the UK, only 5 persons out of 1,115 were expected to pay a bribe (less than 1 percent), showing the best result in all Europe; nevertheless, the perception data show that 64 percent of British respondents think corruption is widespread in the country …

It continues:

In countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia and France, while more than half of the respondents think corruption is a widespread phenomenon, the actual number of people having had to pay a bribe is low (around 2 percent).

It’s true, of course, that not all corruption is experienced on a visceral personal level. Most Americans – at least those who don’t drive over the George Washington Bridge on a regular basis – probably don’t experience official corruption very often. But they’d be naive to think it doesn’t exist in government to a certain extent.

Likewise, the people of Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia and France aren’t wrong that corruption exists in their countries. But I think it’s within reason to suspect they may be slightly overestimating the extent of the problem. At least, it’s certainly the case that when they talk about corruption being “widespread” in their societies, they don’t mean the same thing by that as people in Greece and Italy, or Afghanistan and Haiti.

It’s not to say that there’s no insight to be gained by perception measurements, but using them for country-to-country comparisons feels a bit misleading.

Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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