Swedish research has suggested that virus-era flexible guidelines for common EU procurement provisions could result in increased corruption and reduced legitimacy.
A research article by Brigitte Pircher, associate professor of political science at Linnaeus University, examines the swift steps taken to secure supplies, such as vaccine doses and face masks.
In crisis mode, the European Commission introduced new guidelines for public procurement.
“The guidelines made it possible to efficiently and quickly purchase material all over Europe and globally," researcher Brigitte Pircher points out, in EU Public Procurement Policy During Covid-19: A Turning Point for Legitimate EU Governance?
“This also gave increased flexibility to the member states when purchasing medical supplies. Examples of this are direct contracting, short timeframes and innovative solutions to get hold of supplies,” she adds.
Pircher believes that this development gave the EU, and especially the European Commission, increased power, in that the regulations lay out rights and obligations for joint procurement in the case of COVID-19 vaccinations.
She warns of negative consequences to the guidelines, having examined data from the EU Commission's tender database, with an increased risk of protectionism and political corruption.
“Especially in Eastern and Southern Europe, a trend of single bidders in procurement has increased strongly in the last 15 years, as has direct contracting without any calls for bids. Both are indicators of corruption,” the researcher says.
At the same time, these levels have remained low in Sweden and other EU countries.
Pircher's research thus shows an increased difference between countries in how to implement and apply the procurement provisions.
“One example may be that some member states strive to promote environmental criteria proposed by the EU.
“At the same time, other countries may use the criteria to favour certain companies and businesses ‘through the backdoor’,” says Pircher.
This hidden protectionism has the potential to harm the European single market as a whole, the political researcher warns.
“This would mean that the EU's aims are subverted in practice – and thereby also gradually the legitimacy of the Union,” she concludes.
The article is published in the open-access journal Politics and Governance, vol 10, no 3 (2022).