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EDITORIAL

EU funding scandal: Hell hath no fury

The latest case of suspected corruption involving Slovak government officials is by far one of the strangest yet. Details of how Government Office section head Roland Tóth spent money - over 300 million euros - entrusted to him by the European Union were submitted to police and Tóth's boss by his wife, who is in the process of divorcing him. The EU, through its ruling body the European Commission, cut Slovakia off from future funding in response, but a day after the news went public, reversed its decision and sent a team to investigate. Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík, the man in charge of EU-government relations, denies having covered up the scandal, and says he kept his bosses informed - which they in turn deny.

The latest case of suspected corruption involving Slovak government officials is by far one of the strangest yet. Details of how Government Office section head Roland Tóth spent money - over 300 million euros - entrusted to him by the European Union were submitted to police and Tóth's boss by his wife, who is in the process of divorcing him. The EU, through its ruling body the European Commission, cut Slovakia off from future funding in response, but a day after the news went public, reversed its decision and sent a team to investigate. Deputy Prime Minister Pavol Hamžík, the man in charge of EU-government relations, denies having covered up the scandal, and says he kept his bosses informed - which they in turn deny.

It may be months before the facts of the case are known, but the domestic press is already wringing its hands over what it sees as further evidence that no progress has been made on corruption, and that Slovakia is not ready for EU entry.

The meaning of the case may be somewhat different. The man at the eye of the storm, Roland Tóth, has been handling EU taxpayer money roughly since 1996. If he is guilty of any misdeeds, his behaviour is likely of a long-term nature - as is corruption in Slovakia as a whole. The difference now is that the European Commission is sending a mission to discover the facts, which means that for once a corruption scandal may be thoroughly investigated and the miscreants published.

That hasn't happened before. Too often, the police and politicians have stopped short of going after the country's crooks, because the latter wield great power and influence, and the former are short of both cash and courage.

But with the EU looking on, Slovakia can't afford to appear half-hearted in punishing corruption. It's at once confirmation that the integration process narrows the room for manouevre of the current and future Slovak governments, and that the pressure to conform to western standards will do for this country what its leaders cannot - enforce the rules of the game.

Slovakia will now come under close scrutiny from the EU, whether or not any corruption occurred. This can only help. It will be a lesson for the likes of political populists Vladimír Mečiar and Robert Fico that if they gain power after 2002 elections, any departure from the path ordained by the EU, NATO or the OECD will result in harsh consequences (higher costs of borrowing abroad, international isolation and the domestic political consequences this would bring). It will also reinforce the informal rules governing Slovak society, giving strength to principles like observing contracts and being honest, and discredit distortions such as the communist-era adage that "he who doesn't steal from the state steals from his own family."

Yes, it's embarrassing, but if it is emphasised that these are growing pains rather than adult perfidy, it needn't scar the national image. After all, wasn't it just two years ago that the entire European Commission itself resigned for corruption?

However, there will be serious political pressure applied to keep the consequences of the funding scandal from touching Hamžík. For one, the loss of Hamžík would mean that his party, the Party of Civic Understanding, would have first dibs on nominating a replacement. Hamžík, a Mečiar-era Foreign Minister, may not be the ideal man for the job, but he's a sight better than anyone else Civic Understanding could field.

Nor will Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda want to court disaster by alienating Civic Understanding, whose seats in parliament are key if the government is to keep its majority entering an election year. Nor will he want to rock cabinet by firing a Deputy Prime Minister so close to elections. Tóth will likely be the fall guy, and much will be made of the fact he was appointed under the previous Mečiar government.

Even here, though, a lesson will have been taught. When parties such as Civic Understanding, formed in February 1998 as a political springboard for current President Rudolf Schuster, find themselves in government, their lack of ideological identity means they can become loose cannons if they lose their voter support. Civic Understanding registered over 17% support soon after it began, took just over 8% in September 1998 elections, and collapsed to under 2% in 2000. When government politicians have no voters to satisfy, they lose their roots in political pragmatism, and may be tempted to fill their pockets in the time they have left. This may not be Hamžík's case - but it's a lesson for voters who are watching events unfold.

In the end, the EU funding scandal may not be so damaging after all. It will make clear whose rules apply in Slovakia, as well as where the country is heading. It's fitting the news arrived the way it did, delivered by a woman scorned in much the same way as the country's citizens have been.

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