François Valérian: We are at a turning point. It is essential for political leaders not to be for sale

Beforehand the elections for European Parliament, Transparency International Czech Republic (TI CZ) is bringing an interview with Francois Valerian, the chair of the global board of Transparency International. Why are these elections going to be the most decisive once since 1979? What are the biggest challenges surrounding them? What about the seizure of public TV and radio in Slovakia? And his perspective of financing the European campaign by the Putin regime?

François Valérian | source: TI

Let’s start with the elections for the European Parliament that are coming up in June. You have expressed that these will be probably the most decisive ones since 1979 (i.e. the first elections into the European Parliament). Why is that?

Decisive because Europe has led the way under some aspects in what matters to us which is to fight off use of power and to have the political power that is accountable to the citizens. And it has been part in Europe’s recent history, after Europe had tried other experiences which were clearly experiences of abuse of power, of totalitarianism. Europe by the construction of the European union has moved forward towards an exercise of power, which is more accountable.

Now, what we see, is that there are forces within Europe: political forces, also forces that obtain legal success like the European court of justice ruling one half year ago, that go against these accountable powers that the citizens aspire to.

And we are at a turning point. I don’t even mention the war in Ukraine, but obviously it is a part of the threats that are exercised over Europe by a very kleptocratic regime. So, the reason why arguably the upcoming elections, yes, the most important ones in the history of these elections with universal suffrage. 

You have already expressed some of the concerns and topics for the upcoming elections. Which of them would you say are the main concerns and where does TI stand on them?

There is a very important topic, which is how people conceive their roles as members of the European parliament (MEPs). So, in June all European citizens are called to elect members of the European parliament and I think it is important for us to know what it means being a member of the EU parliament.

Is it only a comfortable activity or very moderate activity with a very decent salary and a possibility to have other jobs in addition to that and to have some travels paid and sometimes as we could see moneybags delivered when you intervene in the right direction. Or are you there to be accountable to the European citizens and to actually work. And that is the question that we keep asking the European bodies.

We have had QatarGate, well one year and half ago, at the end of 2022 in December. Nothing much has been done since then to establish a body that could investigate and sanction the MEPs behaviour. Still recently there has been a vote in the European parliament against side activities for members of parliament, and the ethical oversight is largely toothless.

And we have had very recent reports starting with Czech media (Note by TI CZ:  Deník N), and the Spiegel in Germany, which revealed that there might be some financing of the European campaign itself by the Putin regime. Which is obviously of concern.

And transparency in political financing is clearly one of our main advocacy topics worldwide, because political power cannot be for sale. If the citizens see a political power that is for sale, they will not believe anything that political leaders are doing. Then they will try other experiences – like try to have mighty leaders who decide everything without taking care of freedoms or the civic space.

And this lack of understanding that some MEPs of the European parliament and inside European institutions might have about need for accountability is concerning.

You have mentioned QatarGate, which I would like to elaborate on. It was this enormous case related to MEPs, but do you actually think that it is a topic for the general public in Europe?

Yes, it is a very important topic, because first of all – all the European institutions are being financed by the European citizens. There are contributions from the member states, which come from the taxpayer’s money. So, these institutions are being financed by the European citizens for them to work for the European citizens. And what we want is that all money that comes for these European institutions is used for the means it was intended for.

And it is the work of TI Czech Republic about the green funds and how to convert old coal mining regions into the new economy and energy transitions (Note by TI CZ:  ProKlima, Uhlíková korupce). But what we also want is that people we are paying for doing a job are actually doing this job and are not asking other foreign powers for extra payments to lure the country they were elected for. And that’s what this issue of QatarGate – I don’t think the investigations is completely concluded, but that’s what we read in the media – that some foreign powers, some non-European, non-EU powers are exercising what we call strategic corruption, which means they are trying to buy political power in other regions of the world to advance their own interest opaquely, that’s obvious.

The Putin regime or other governments could decide to transparently finance media and political parties in Europe. Many citizens would disagree but at least we would have a debate. But the issue is that it is hidden money, hidden financing and that’s the problem.

To have these hidden money flows, because the facts that they are hidden, proves the criminal intent. And the criminal intent is to buy the sovereignty of Europe.

Speaking of hidden intent, you mentioned the media case around Putin’s regime possibly financing politicians across Europe. Would you elaborate on that?

Yes, well, what we saw in the press releases was that one specific party, the German AfD, but also, I think other parties from other western European countries were involved. So, yes this is concerning. What we want to have is an accountable power.

Now, in terms of what party was financed and what not…we as TI are not a political movement in sense that we are not competing for power, we are not campaigning for one party against another one, but what we are doing, is to see how transparent or opaque parties and candidates are about their sources of funding.

And I would like to refer to work that has been done by a country very close to Czech Republic, to TI Slovakia, where they monitored the expenses in the last parliamentary campaign and what they found was that the party that won the elections was also the party with the most opaque funding sources. And that is clearly concerning to us.

It should probably be more concerning to all citizens. We observe that number of those citizens are so desperate, so sceptical about the way political power is and has been exercised by a number of parties and also probably EU institutions and EU parliament, they are ready to believe any leader with a good rhetoric and they don’t care about transparency in political financing.

So, we have to explain that it is fundamental and essential that if their political leaders are for sale, it means that their fate as citizens will be for sale as well.

Czech chapter of Transparency International has been monitoring pre-election campaigns as part of the unique “Transparent Elections” project since 2012. Our evaluations are regularly among the most widely cited pre-election evaluations in the country.

This year in 2024, we are evaluating the transparency of campaigns for the European Parliament on the basis of 7 predefined criteria of so called „good practice“. We also focus, for example, on monitoring trends in political advertising on social media. Visit for more.

This is the second topic that I wanted to talk about, since we work closely with Slovakia. The manipulative ways and disinformation spreading in central Europe and elsewhere, you said we have to explain why transparency is important. How can TI help pushing back on these untruthful and factually incorrect news and information?

We spoke about accountability for the political leaders, but there has to be accountability for media and all those working in the media and people who use the media to spread information.

When we as TI are publishing a report, we also publish our sources of reports. What a lot of people, but also powers, are doing with the online media mainly, is not that. It is to spread not information, but assertions, so they are stating number of things.They do not prove them, but since they have been successful in building a network of people who believe that the truth is coming from them, since they are targeting the people that are hated by a number of other people, it is enough. And they don’t have to explain this misinformation.

So, you have media that are used for that, you also have media the ownership of which is unclear, I think it is what your chapter is working on (Note by TI CZ: last report on media houses in Czech Republic from was in 2021), so you have individuals who are hiding behind legal entities, the beneficial ownership of which is unknown.

And that drives us back to our request for having transparency for all legal entities worldwide. We know we had a setback one and half year ago in the European court of justice, but now we are back to European directive (Note by TI CZ:  Anti-Money Laundering Directive – AMLD), which is in our view temporary, but still with good measures, but it has to be implemented so that civil organizations and investigative journalists can have access Europewide to the ownership of all legal entities including those that are owning the media.

This spreading of false information and disinformation is considerable and has been observed worldwide and in Europe. Particularly in the context of the health crisis, but also in the context of war in Ukraine and in all matters related to the Putin regime.

So, yes, it is clearly a concern, and it is also linked to the mistrust towards the democratic institutions. But with some responsibility from the political leaders in that mistrust, because political leaders even from democratic parties and from democratic regimes are abusing their power, and those that supposedly benefited from the QatarGate were not coming from non-democratic parties.

If they were more accountable, there would be less appetite for every kind of disinformation spread around by social media.

Talking about media we are seeing “the next step” from sharing disinformation in Slovakia right now. The leading party is trying to seize the public TV and radio (i.e. RTVS). How is that a topic for TI and how can we challenge these political tactics where leaders are trying to have public institutions under control?

It is very threatening to civil society and to the work of civil society, because the only thing the citizens have to be able to be able to form a judgement on society and politics and the policies that are being followed, is information.

So, if they are deprived of independent information, they lack everything and they are left to the false truths imposed on them by those in power.

So, yes, it is concerning to see these attempts in Slovakia. With argument that the journalists would be biased… this argument is an argument that we also hear in France by some private interests that are trying to build media outlets that do not deliver balanced information at all.

François Valérian was elected Chair in 2023. Since 2019 he had been a member of the International Board where he was active in various committtees, including the Membership Accreditation Committee, which he chaired until 2022. From 2013 to 2023 he was a member of the board of Transparency International France, where he worked on illicit financial flows, political integrity and strategic litigation.

Formerly the leader of business integrity programmes at the Transparency International Secretariat, François initiated Transparency International’s advocacy at the G20 around financial regulation and anti-corruption.

In his professional career, François worked both in public and private sectors. He negotiated social agreements with coal mine trade unions, worked for BNP Paribas and was a partner at Accenture. He was the editor-in-chief of the Annales des Mines, an economic review. He was an associate professor of finance at CNAM and taught financial regulation and oversight at École des Mines de Paris, a course he created in 2013. He is the author of several books and articles, graduated from Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole des Mines de Paris, and holds a PhD in History.

We have talked about some challenges and topics that mostly are faced in Europe, but what are the challenges that TI faces globally? Maybe ones that you have accumulated in the past few months in your new role?

The challenges are somehow alike. There is no longer a European exception, with respect. We observe these setbacks that civil society is suffering from and it is true in most countries – we have abuse of power, we have a concentration of power in the executive branch of power, so that you have confusion of powers and we do not have separation of powers.

You have these temptations of choosing, of favoring authoritarian leaders who promised to solve it all without consideration for civil society and without international cooperation.

That is the second aspect that I would like to insist on. We are fighting the global economy of corruption with illicit financial flows that are going across borders and this global economy of corruption is what explains the daily corruption that is being observed in most countries, because all the money that is flowing away from the country is creating a vacuum. This vacuum is filled by daily corruption being exercised by anybody in power who is trying to exploit their power.

So, we have this link between the global economy of corruption and all these economies of corruption that we see domestically. This is a global challenge just like the climate crisis.

And in front of these global challenges we have the fragmented political work that is divided into many different governments, states, judiciaries that we need international cooperation between these countries and between judiciary systems.

It is not always easy to achieve this international cooperation, but we need it more than ever – the global civil society made of all national, if I may say, civil societies interacting with each other, exchanging information, hence the importance of having access to information and the ability to campaign on international basis for curbing the abuse of power.

Speaking of advocacy and campaigning, what are your goals for the next three years?

Well, it is really to strengthen the movement, to make sure that we are fully using the fact that we are truly a global movement with this possibility to exchange experiences, to exchange information between countries of same region, but also between continents. So, that we are stronger and able to fight back against all those who want to silence civil society and journalists.

And that we are able to contribute to ending this culture of secrecy, which has been the principle of the exercise of power in Europe for centuries.

To end on a good note, have you learned anything new, maybe surprising in the last few months exercising your new role in TI?

I have learned a lot of new things, interacting with people, travelling to meet them. We had regional in-person meetings in Latin America and Africa, we will have one in Europe next fall.

So, I have learned a lot of new things, not necessarily fun things, since I am learning new ways for corrupt people to enrich themselves.

It is so important to have people to meet and exchange experiences and I am looking forward to the IACC in June, where we will have lots of people coming from inside and outside the movement as well.

And I think we will have a great week of experiences and information sharing, so that we will be able to build even more effective strategies against corruption.

Author: Františka Rohlíčková

The interview was made on April 30, 2024. You can find Czech version here.

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