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'

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