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:

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Greece’s Golden Opportunity: Economic Crisis and Corruption

Greece’s struggles with corruption are longstanding. Greece has perennially been viewed as one of, if not the, most corrupt countries in the European Union (EU). (In 2014, for example, Greece was tied, along with Italy and Romania, for last among EU countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index). Recently, however, coverage of Greece’s ongoing battle with corruption has increased dramatically due to two interrelated factors: (1) the election of the Syriza party, which has never before held political power and ran in part on an anticorruption platform; and (2) ongoing negotiations with other members of the EU to receive additional, vitally important bailout funds as Greece continues to struggle to rebound from an economic crisis that first began in 2010 (in which some have suggested that Greece’s receipt of any additional loans should be conditioned on its ability to make “credible progress in boosting [its] tax take and fighting corruption”).

Transparency International and others are (admittedly somewhat reservedly) hopeful that the election of the Syriza party will signal a renewed focus on combating corruption by the Greek government, calling its campaign platform “music to our ears as long as [its] commitments remain strong and unwavering” and noting that the “new government seems more committed to addressing corruption than past ones.” And there have been some promising early indications of the new government’s willingness to combat corruption.  For example, its new anticorruption chief recently announced he will be investigating 80,000 of the wealthiest individuals in Greece who are believed to have funds in foreign bank accounts for tax evasion. Nonetheless, there have been some rumblings of discontent from both anticorruption activists and the broader international community. Other members of the EU have accused the government of “wasting important time” in instituting anticorruption measures and commentators have noted that too little has been done to make good on campaign promises of “tackl[ing] the corrupt oligarchical business elites that dominate the economy.”

It is likely premature to judge the Syriza govenrment’s commitment or ability to combat corruption.  Yet as Greece continues to grapple with an economic crisis that has left the country reeling – and dependent upon significant loans from the International Monetary Fund and the EU – it seems an appropriate time to draw attention to the fact that this crisis has presented both the Syriza government and broader anticorruption community with a rare opportunity to make significant strides in addressing corruption in Greece, an opportunity that prior administrations have failed to appropriately capitalize on.

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