In Europe and in the United States, elections or electoral campaigns expose the lenience with which some of our political leaders approach the thorny issue of conflict of interest. In most countries, we witness growing relationships between the public and private sector. Some politicians maintain substantial interests in their private companies; others too casually dismiss private interests’ concerns. Whether legal or not, public ethics and decency are at stake.
Irrespective of any political or public policy consideration, does a president, a prime minister, a minister, a state secretary have the right to do or influence private business deals while exercising public functions? The answer should be simple: No! Why is that? Because private interests influence – or at least appear to influence – the impartial and objective performance of their official duties as entrusted to them by the public. This is classic conflict of interest.
Conflict of interest encompasses a broad spectrum of behaviour: at one extreme is corruption; at the other, misconduct. The main aim of conflict of interest laws is to prevent improper behaviour, misconduct or crime before they arise.
It cannot be expected that all forms of conflict of interest are exhaustively regulated by law. Ethical dilemmas are infinite and evolve over time. The public standard of morality has become much stricter. Previously acceptable conduct is now unethical and previously unethical conduct is now criminal. Let’s think, for example, of the formerly accepted practice of giving and receiving gifts. Today, such practice is clearly inadmissible when the gift is, or appears to be, designed to influence official conduct.
It is irrefutable that all public officials must act with untainted integrity, outright impartiality and unequivocal commitment to the public interest, both in reality and in appearance. For the basis of democracy is public confidence, and that confidence is at risk when ethical standards stagger or appear to stagger. When confidence is broken, demagogy and populism prevail.
This is why we must forcefully address conflict of interest. The Council of Europe´s anti-corruption body GRECO has issued clear guidance to states on reforms needed to handle conflicts of interests. If fully implemented, we would witness fewer allegations of corruption today. The public rightly expects these allegations to be dealt with promptly and in a transparent manner, through independent and impartial investigations. This includes not only when allegations occur in national administration, but also in international institutions, including the Council of Europe.
We need to do more. That is why GRECO soon will focus on conflicts of interest in top governmental functions in its evaluation reports. Through country reports, its experts will evaluate integrity measures in central governments, including the highest state authorities, after having assessed the prevention of corruption in respect of judges, prosecutors and parliamentarians in recent years.
Conflicts of interest involve both subtle and clear-cut judgments. The mere fact of having a conflict of interest is not in itself reproachable. It is often the response, rather than the conflict itself, that determines whether a public official has acted with integrity.
For that ethical response to happen, a safe climate must be created where integrity issues are dealt with consciously and acting ethically is considered to be a shared responsibility and an individual, moral duty. This is not difficult, but it demands objectivity, integrity, and high ethical standards. Most importantly, it demands that our political leaders respect the public office and the institutions and the people they are called to serve. This is what our citizens expect and this is what we need to deliver.