Behold Greeks bearing a gift

While other European countries have seen a rise in anti-EU parties, the one nation that came close to leaving has reentered the fold with a measure of success.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses lawmakers in Athens before a Feb. 22 vote on setting up a special committee which will probe the role of ten politicians in a case which involves alleged bribery by Swiss drugmaker Novartis.

The family of 28 nations known as the European Union has had a rough decade of near divorces. The latest blow was Italy’s election last Sunday. The anti-EU parties won. In other parts of Europe, similar parties have advanced. Britain wants out of the Continent-fusing project altogether.

But then there is Greece, which may serve as a model of a prodigal nation.

In 2009, the country of 11 million nearly brought down the eurozone and came close to exiting the EU after admitting it had lied about the size of its deficit (which was five times above the EU guideline). The official dishonesty, coupled with deep-seated corruption, spooked foreign lenders and defied core EU values of integrity in governance.

With the Greek economy near collapse, however, the EU and other creditors decided it was worth throwing Athens a financial lifeline – hefty loans with conditions of austerity and other reforms.

The cash-for-rescue effort seems to be working for now. Greece made a critical decision in 2015 to implement the EU-mandated reforms. It has improved government openness and transparency on budgeting, procurement, and trade – all key areas in fighting corruption.

Here’s the clincher: In 2018, Greece’s economy is expected to grow faster than that of the EU as a whole. In addition, the government has been running a fiscal surplus instead of the big deficits of a decade ago. And unemployment has fallen from 30 percent to less than 20 percent in the past five years.

On corruption, however, the leftist government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras still has far to go in ensuring a virtuous circle of honesty and openness. Last month, two of its ministers had to resign after accepting a housing subsidy. And the Council of Europe told Greece this month that it has fulfilled only six of 19 recommendations aimed at rooting out corruption. Some of the government’s new rules require lawmakers to disclose gifts and reveal potential conflicts of interest.

One sign of hope is that Greece is currently in a vigorous public debate about the alleged bribery of 10 top politicians by Swiss drugmaker Novartis. And polls show Greeks are more demanding of integrity in their elected leaders.

This mood in Greece reflects a global trend. “More and more citizens from a growing number of countries ... have presently come to demand that their governments deliver good governance,” writes Alina Mungiu-Pippidi of the European Research Center for Anti-Corruption and State-Building in a new book.

The EU and other official lenders are still holding Greece to account. With further reform, it might have enough financial credibility by the end of the year to return to private markets for money. Instead of a divorce from the EU, it has been making up. The key was a new embrace of integrity.

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