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EU fights explosive mix of political scandals and austerity

Italy, Spain and Greece have all been hit by fraud or graft cases allegedly involving the top brass. France joined the ranks of scandal-hit nations this week after its former budget minister was charged with tax fraud.

“Everything is coming together to reinforce populist theories — the theory that ‘they’re all rotten’,” said Eddy Fougier, a researcher at the Paris-based IRIS think tank, which analyses international issues.

In France, outrage over the budget minister scandal has yet to erupt into popular protests.

But in some countries of southern Europe, which for several years have been hit by austerity measures more severe than in France, fury has coiled into potent blowback.

Italy, for instance, is currently in the midst a major political impasse triggered in part by voter discontent over a string of scandals.

Ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is involved in tax fraud, sex-for-money and other cases.

Fed-up Italians registered their anger en masse in February general elections, giving former comedian Beppe Grillo’s new anti-corruption, anti-austerity party — the Five Star Movement — 25 percent of the votes.

That led to a three-way split between the parties of Grillo, Berlusconi and a centre-left party run by Pier Luigi Bersani. The result was a failure to form a new government in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

“No political party must be under any illusion. Even if they did not all act in the same way, there is rage against them,” said Giacomo Marramao, a professor of political philosophy at Roma Tre University.

A series of scandals has also sparked anger in Spain, where citizens brandish drawings of envelopes — a reference to hiding wads of cash in a symbol of graft — in street protests and on the Internet as a sign of their disgust.

“In Spain, people have never really forgiven the act of pocketing money, and if it coincides with a period of general crisis, then it spawns incredibly hostile feelings,” said Emilio de Diego, professor of contemporary history at the Complutense University of Madrid.

The country’s ruling Popular Party, in power since the end of 2011, has been rocked by two separate probes.

It has been accused of using a slush fund to make secret payments to senior members, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — a claim he denies — and is also involved in a corruption scandal related to awarding state contracts.

The royal family has also been drawn into the storm, with a Spanish judge naming Princess Cristina as a suspect in a graft case centred on allegations of embezzlement and influence-peddling against her husband and his ex-business partner.

In Greece, where tax evasion is widespread, thousands have over the months taken to the streets to denounce the “thieves” sitting in parliament, in protest against tough austerity measures.

A scandal involving more than 2,000 prominent Greek politicians, media and industry moguls with Swiss bank accounts has also made waves.

The scandal is based on a list of names originally sent from Paris in 2010 but kept buried for two years and under two successive governments. It recently resurfaced in the press, with calls to use it in the battle against tax evasion.

Even in northern Europe, the crisis has exacerbated public anger over abuse of power and corruption.

In Belgium, the creation in late 2012 of a private foundation by Queen Fabiola sparked a public uproar, as it was widely perceived as a way to avoid paying the country’s 70 percent inheritance tax.

The 84-year-old has since dissolved the charitable vehicle, and her annual income from the state has been reduced from 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million) to around 900,000 euros.

Fabrice Randoux / AFP / Expatica

Photo credit: Images_of_Money