Austria must improve its strategy against government and law enforcement corruption, according to a report by the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) released on Wednesday. The report notes that several recent scandals involving high-ranking officials in the executive branch have severely damaged public confidence in political figures.
The report highlights ongoing corruption investigations involving former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, which have raised concerns about press freedom in the country. The investigations have uncovered questionable links between politicians, polling companies, and the media, according to GRECO.
In the past six years, five Austrian governments have fallen under allegations of corruption. While there has been a National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NAKS) in place since 2018, important reforms such as the transparency law, the criminal law reform, and the lobbying law are still waiting to be developed.
“Petty corruption doesn’t seem to be an issue for the police in Austria,” the report notes. However, there are serious concerns about politicization in the police force, particularly when it comes to appointments to senior staff. The report calls for increased transparency and efforts to avoid undue influence in relevant selection and appointment processes for senior law enforcement positions.
The report also calls for further efforts in the area of whistleblower protection, which it says is “a priority matter that requires immediate action.” At the beginning of February, the National Council passed a new legal regulation to provide better protection for whistleblowers. Based on EU requirements, the establishment of internal and external reporting offices for whistleblowers in the public sector and in every company with at least 50 employees is planned.
While Austria has made progress in implementing anti-corruption measures, there is still much work to be done, according to the report. The supervisory, advisory, and prosecution system must be significantly strengthened, and the activities of general secretaries and cabinet staff made more transparent. The passage of a separate law on access to information is still an open question, and the legislative footprint and the disclosure of contacts with lobbyists must be improved.
GRECO notes that avoiding and managing conflicts of interest is a special challenge in Austria that deserves special attention. While there are certain requirements in terms of secondary employment, financial interests, and disclosure requirements for ministers and state secretaries, there is still a lot of room for improvement in this area, particularly with regard to the issue of the revolving door effect, which is currently viewed critically.
According to SPÖ justice spokeswoman Selma Yildirim, “It is the next international report in which Austria is given a bad report on corruption.” Yildirim called for more speed in the fight against corruption and “real will for improvements” from the government.
Austria needs to take immediate action to restore public confidence in its political officials by strengthening its anti-corruption measures, increasing transparency, and avoiding undue influence in relevant selection and appointment processes.
It is crucial that Austria takes a more targeted approach to corruption prevention in the area of law enforcement, particularly for senior public officials, and implements further measures in relation to potential conflicts of interest of police officers. Whistleblower protection must also be improved, and the government must show a real will for improvements in the fight against corruption.