Too Much of a Good Thing? Moderation and Anticorruption Strategies in Greece

This past month’s headlines have been dominated by the Greek debt crisis and how it has been handled (or mishandled) by the EU and IMF. The Syriza party, which rose to prominence due in large part to its opposition to the austerity measures imposed upon Greece by its creditors, first rejected a deal offered by its European creditors to procure additional funds and then, following the resignation of its finance minister and a hotly contested vote in Parliament, accepted the imposition of additional restrictions, including “consumer tax increases and pensions cuts” in anticipation of another round of negotiations to receive a bailout “worth about 85 billion euros.” It is impossible to predict what the final terms of any deal reached during the course of these negotiations may be; once the dust has finally settled and Greece has either acquiesced to the demands of its European creditors in order to secure needed funds or undertaken the “Grexit” from the Euro that many commentators fear, its government will be forced to once more take stock of its economic position and determine the best path forward to meet both the obligations imposed upon it by its creditors and its people’s desire for a brighter economic future.

Given this ongoing macroeconomic and political crisis, measures to address corruption in Greece–both domestically and abroad–may seem like a secondary concern at best. Yet there are those (especially those sympathetic to Greece’s international creditors) who believe that Greece’s troubles are due at least in part to its failure to adequately address corruption, and that Greece could bolster its faltering economy if it reined in the rampant corruption that has perennially placed Greece amongst the most corrupt nations in the European Union. And while Syriza and its creditors may agree on very little, Syriza in fact also made anticorruption a major part of its campaign platform, though its attempts to implement more robust anticorruption measures are at best in their nascent stages and have been overshadowed by the recent contentious negotiations over a new bailout.

So while this may seem premature, perhaps we should consider how the Greek government ought to approach its anticorruption struggle in the coming years. And here, strategic prioritization is likely to be essential: If we presume (reasonably) that Greece is unlikely to be able to commit considerably greater resources to its anticorruption efforts in the near term, the Greek government will have to make some difficult choices regarding how best to allocate its finite resources when deciding if and how to target different forms of corruption.

One such choice will be how much to prioritize the fight against foreign bribery (that is, bribes paid by Greek citizens and firms in other countries). Last March, the OECD released a report chiding Greece for not having “given the same priority to fighting foreign bribery as it has to domestic corruption,” a decision that, according to the OECD, “sends an unfortunate message that foreign bribery is an acceptable means to…improve Greece’s economy during an economic crisis.” This may well be true. Yet to the extent that Greece is able to renew its focus upon combating corruption in the aftermath of its current bailout negotiations, Greece would be better off if it (temporarily) ignores the OECD’s advice and instead focuses primarily on domestic rather than foreign corruption. There are several reasons for this:

  • First, while the question of how to prioritize combating different types of corruption may at times be fraught, the decision to focus upon domestic corruption makes good sense both in terms of Greece’s obligations to its citizens and as part of its attempts to combat corruption more broadly. Indeed, if we do believe that Greece has a “culture of corruption” (admittedly a controversial concept), focusing upon domestic corruption, rather than foreign bribery, seems like the correct course of action. Building cultural norms against corruption is likely to be easier when the corruption at issue is domestic and thus likely to harm Greek citizens.
  • Second, even if one rejects the notion that Greece has a “culture of corruption” or that this is a useful lens for examining the problems that Greece currently faces, simply from a practical perspective, it appears likely that focusing on domestic corruption is likely to benefit more Greek citizens than using Greece’s finite resources to prosecute instances of foreign bribery. This means that domestic efforts are more likely to attract sustained domestic political support.
  • Third, Greece’s decision to focus upon domestic corruption rather than foreign bribery appears logical in light of the fact that, unlike domestic corruption, there are other organizations and nations that could (potentially) address some of the instances of bribery the OECD has identified, such as, for example, the US FCPA. Of course, the FCPA’s reach, while broad, is not unlimited; but to the extent that the Greek government is making reasoned decisions about how best to allocate its resources, the existence of additional international safeguards against foreign bribery could well counsel against increasing its own efforts in this area.
  • Fourth, if Greece lacks the resources or political will to fully commit to combating foreign bribery at this point, undertaking half-hearted attempts to curb this practice might do more harm than good. Pressuring Greece to act against foreign bribery might lead only to a few token efforts, which could be viewed as ineffective or arbitrary.

In sum, despite the OECD’s criticisms and recommendations, Greece’s decision to focus the bulk of its anticorruption efforts on combating domestic corruption is likely sound. It is better for Greece to focus first on making measurable strides in curbing domestic corruption and, only once these efforts have increased both the government’s effectiveness at (and reputation for) combating corruption, to turn to the problem of foreign bribery.

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