So is corruption really just a vice of the Latin nations?

The notion that we southerners are more corrupt than northerners looks increasingly a myth

CORRUPTION IS a Latin vice, according to Europeans in the Teutonic north. The fault lines separating them from the culture of the south are moral. As you approach the Mediterranean, you have to buy bureaucrats and bribe businessmen. Southerners need sweeteners. In the lands of olive oil, palms need greasing. Romano Prodi is branded as unfit for the European Commission presidency on the grounds that northerners could not tolerate an Italian in charge of sleaze.

Yet, in the light of the current Euro-scandal the north looks naughtier than the Mediterranean. In deference to the myth of northern purity, the committee of "sages" who drew up the explosive report on fraud, nepotism, cronyism, malpractice and mismanagement in Brussels was weighted in favour of northerners.

The south was represented by one Spaniard. His colleagues were a Swede, a Belgian, a Dutchman - and a Frenchman who, as a deputy in the French legislature, represented Finisterre. The Italian commissioners were exonerated by the sages. Spanish and Portuguese commissioners jobbed their wives into work in Brussels but without infringing proper procedures; their excess was of zeal for the family values we hear so much about. The Spaniard, Manuel Marin, sometimes acted sluggishly but was prompt to clean up fraud in the aid programme to Mediterranean countries. Among commissioners, he is the only southerner whose integrity seems less than fully burnished by the report, whereas against the northerners Jacques Santer and Erki Liikanen of Finland, allegations of nepotism are merely said to be "unproven". The cronyism of which the German Monika Wulf-Mathies is accused is the result, in the sages' restrainedly damning language, of "an inappropriate procedure". Edith Cresson, painted as the scarlet woman of the case, comes from just about as far north in France as you can get.

This subversion of north-south stereotypes - respectively of clean hands and sticky fingers - seems in line with the overall balance of scandal in today's Europe. North and south are like pot and kettle and neither out-shines the other. Though Britain's commissioners are guiltless in Brussels, Tony's cronies hang around Westminster, where cash has bought influence. Suspicions of corrupt electoral practices have recently led to the exclusion of an MP. The contest to be the Labour candidate to head the Welsh government has been strewn with sex, drugs and rumours of vote- rigging. In the era of open government and press vigilance scandal seems ubiquitous. Europe's juicier recent political scandals have been evenly spread across the map. In Ireland, a former prime minister has been let off his tax bill by a commission led by his successor's brother-in law.

In Belgium, a Secretary-General of Nato and 11 other high officials were condemned in a flagrant corruption case, and a deputy prime minister was murdered in an alleged attempt at a cover-up. In Finland, a spy scandal last year exposed the corruptibility of public servants; in France, the president has been implicated in a scam involving sinecures for political cronies. In Luxembourg, the health minister resigned because his department had been paying phoney hospital bills. The notion that southerners are more corrupt than northerners looks increasingly like a myth.

England, in particular, has a long history of spectacularly corrupt plunderers of the system. It has been alleged on behalf of Edith Cresson that in employing her dentist as her scientific adviser at public expense she was merely showing rational favouritism to someone she trusted.

This recalls Sir Francis Bacon's defence against corruption when he was Lord Chancellor of England in the early 17th century: he had taken bribes, but did not allow them to influence his judgement. Justifying his depredations, the 18th-century imperialist Robert Clive declared himself "astonished at my own moderation". When David Lloyd George was prime minister, he sold titles of honour and preferment. The "lavender list" that bore the names of Harold Wilson's honorands exuded a similar scent of corruption.

It would be rash, however, to suppose that no great historic transformation is in progress. Europe's map of sleaze is being re-drawn against the background of two long-term processes of change.

First is a change in perceptions. Historically, northern contempt for southern corruptibility has been based, in part, on an irrational inference from the whiff of the south: the rapid rot and taint, the debilitating climate, the malodorous air. Images of corruption came easily to the "curiously impertinent" writers and artists who formed their fellow northerners' perceptions of southern Europe over 300 years. A conviction of superior parity, moreover, was, until recently, part of Protestants' myth of themselves, enshrined in the theory of the sociologist Max Weber, who claimed that Protestant culture was characterised by "inner-worldly asceticism". Nowadays no one is likely to be deceived by climatic determinism or believe Weber's theory.

Secondly, it must be acknowledged that changing perceptions reflect a real change in the morals of public life in the south. Corruptibility comes not from the air or the climate but from the economic environment and the political culture. In the 17th and 18th centuries, relatively cash-rich, high-tax regimes such as those of Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden could, for most of the time, afford salaried functionaries who did not normally have to buy their offices from crown or state. In France, Spain, Italy and parts of Germany in the same period, public service was besmirched by venality; office-holders bought their jobs and had to exploit them for all they could get. There was therefore a long period when standards of public service were genuinely more professional and less venal in some parts of Europe than in others.

In the last 200 years this has gradually, fitfully, ceased to be true. We now have more-or-less-uniform systems throughout the European Union. Mutual acculturation has made south and north ever more like each other. We are beginning to recognise our prejudices about each other as historically instructive but misleadingly irrelevant. Let no part of Europe think itself better in this respect than another: corruption is everybody's problem.

The author's latest book is `Truth: A History'

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London