The first crime is the hardest

Agatha Christie’s sleuth hero Hercule Poirot (portrayed here by actor David Suchet) observed that murder could become a habit. European government institutions are also making a habit of egregiously breaking rules (source: dpa)
Agatha Christie’s sleuth hero Hercule Poirot (portrayed here by actor David Suchet) observed that murder could become a habit. European government institutions are also making a habit of egregiously breaking rules (source: dpa)

World-famous British crime novelist Agatha Christie was an outstanding observer of human nature. In Murder in Mesopotamia, her sleuth hero, Hercule Poirot, makes this astute observation: “There are things that my profession has taught me. And one of these things, the most terrible thing, is this: murder is a habit.” The implication is that after one commits a crime for the first time, doing it again becomes easier. Looking at the present behavior of governments and institutions in Europe, one is reminded of the wisdom of this insight, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

When a law – or even a best practice – is violated and no sanction follows, what was once a transgression becomes a common practice. Habitual abuse of the law is a form of corruption. There will always be miscreants deriving advantages from this – for example, to get reelected.

The tendency for disregarding sound rules of governance became noticeable in Western Europe a number of years ago, mostly due to public overspending. This has led to various crises today. Among them is a crisis of political institutions.

For one, the European Central Bank does not respect the necessity to separate monetary policy from fiscal policy. Its artificially low interest rates erode the value of money, while quantitative easing constitutes a significant breach of the EU’s fundamental no-bailout rule.

When a project deemed essential by the European Council or the European Commission is rejected by citizens in referendums or voted down by democratically elected national parliaments, the vote is repeated and the European political establishment exercises its pressure until the outcome is rectified. Another strategy for subverting the democratic process after a lost vote is to reintroduce the rejected initiative with a different label. Both of these tactics were employed by Eurocrats as they pushed for passage of the controversial “European Constitution,” which was ultimately replaced by the Treaty of Lisbon.

Several EU member states, starting with Germany and France, flaunted the Maastricht Treaty’s deficit rules, with disastrous consequences. No one has been made accountable for exceeding limits on public spending. As a result, enormous deficits have ballooned across the continent and continue to grow.

In order to partially cover these deficits – products of populist politics – rules of law are violated again, now in the application of taxes. Retroactive taxes are one such travesty. Another is vast electronic data collection to monitor taxpayers; the current practices by governmental agencies violate the rules of privacy under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and make a mockery of presumption of innocence. Member states have disregarded a clear verdict on this from the European Court of Justice (April 8, 2014, on the Data Retention Directive).

Among other important rules, provisions of the Schengen Agreement are being widely ignored as panicking governments grope for responses to the influx of refugees into Europe.

EU citizens, meanwhile, are expected to fully comply with all the laws on the books and, on top of that, also to meet undefined “ethical” standards alluded to by politicians or NGOs. Those pronounced guilty of noncompliance with such diffuse rules are subjected to “name and shame” harassment.

Making matters worse, individuals and businesses are now confronted with a flood of laws and administrative regulations, many of them contradictory. It is impossible in many instances to be informed of whether one’s own acts are legal. As opposed to the breaches of law that governments and institutions commit willingly, which are not met with sanctions, inadvertent noncompliance by individuals and business is punished.

Around the year 100 A.D., when the Roman Empire was still at the peak of its power, the first signs of decline became apparent. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, observed then of the Roman state: “Corruptisima republica plurimae leges” – the more corrupt a state, the more laws.

As Rome became corrupt, trust in its institutions faded and the empire collapsed.

In Western Europe, many are quick these days to brand other countries as corrupt or illiberal. Few notice to what extent our own legal systems have come to criminalize actions of honest citizens – if only by the sheer number of impenetrable rules. This is also a system of collective corruption, the worst sort of all.

This regulatory jungle disorients individuals while greatly easing their prosecution for alleged wrongdoing. Interestingly, the system resists efforts to make it more transparent. As a result, public accountability, a crucial component of a functioning democracy, is vanishing throughout Europe.

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