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
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home