Petr Nečas, the Czech prime minister, finally stepped down. On Monday afternoon, five days after his country was hit by the biggest corruption scandal in its recent history, he resigned.

Nečas clearly would have liked things to turn out differently. In the past few days he made it clear he had done nothing wrong and that he would remain no matter what.

Nevertheless, he may count himself lucky. A few weeks ago one of his former colleagues, former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, was sent to prison for two years by a court in Ljubljana. He was convicted of accepting bribes for the purchase of Finnish armoured vehicles. His case shares some striking similarities with the Czech corruption scandal. That case too involved kick-backs on military equipment.

Things are no better further afield. In Croatia, which will become a member of the European Union in two weeks, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is in jail awaiting the outcome of his trial. He is looking at more than 10 years in prison.

Good news and bad

The problems facing these former prime ministers are both good and bad news. Good news, because almost 10 years after the European Union started to expand to the east, some inroads are finally being made in the battle against corruption. Unfortunately the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia are not exceptions.

In other former eastern bloc countries the judiciary is slowly but surely taking action against organised crime. Even in countries with an extremely poor reputation, like Romania and Bulgaria, things are happening which a few years ago would have been considered impossible. No fewer than three ministers have been charged in the last few months.

The bad news is that their problems show that old habits die very, very hard. Although the new member states have adapted their legislation to Brussels' requirements, actual implementation often turns out to be another story. It is a legacy of communism, when corruption was a natural part of social life.

The consequences of this can be seen to this day. Not a day goes by in the new member states of the European Union when some scandal or another does not make the front page, even in countries which lead the way in fighting corruption, like Poland.

Brussels’ intervention

Insofar as European money is involved, Brussels can intervene. At the end of last year the European Commission blocked more than €800m in subsidies after discovering corruption relating to the construction of a Polish motorway. Other former East bloc countries have already been rapped on their knuckles for fiddling with public tenders. But these are and remain exceptions. Because corruption is generally difficult to prove, Brussels is virtually powerless in the face of thriving corruption.

There is no alternative. Of the countries which in the past decade became members of the European Union, only Romania and Bulgaria are still under (limited) supervision of the European Commission. But it has proven difficult to put pressure on even them. No use was ever made of the possibility to impose sanctions. The only "big stick" available is blocking their accession to Schengen, but no miracles can be expected from this either.

It is this lack of power which caused four rich member states, including the Netherlands, to present proposals to freeze the European funds for countries which do not abide by the rules. It sounds good, but due to the discord within the European Union the proposals do not stand a chance.

The clean out will thus have to come from the bottom up, slowly but surely, step by step. Whoever thinks it can go faster only has to look at Bulgaria, a country where 98 per cent of the public tenders are won by 2 per cent of the companies.

Street protests against widespread corruption led to the collapse of the government earlier this year. In the meantime the Bulgarians can start from the beginning. One of the first decisions of the new government was the appointment of a corrupt media tycoon as head of the secret service. Prime Minster Plamen Oresjarski had no objections.