Adrian Severin — The Metaphysician of Malfeasance

Adrian Severin’s happier days

Corruption is more often than not something formulaic. Nepotism, graft, embezzlement, these are all acts that are driven by mundane needs such as material gains or social standing. The corrupt official does not seæek to upset the order of things, to undermine the state or impoverish the populace — these are merely the consequences of his actions, actions that are driven by petty desires. And yet one can philosophize around the concept of corruption. From abstractions about the public good, and all the way to social contracts and conceptions of what it truly means to be a moral being, philosophers have touched upon corruption as a constant element in human society. Aristotle himself divided all forms of government into just ones where rulers govern for the people and “corrupt ones” where they govern for themselves. Rousseau’s discourse on inequality treats corruption as both a political and a moral failing of man.

To this great panoply of philosophers one can now add one more: Adrian Severin, the Sophos-minded member of the European Parliament who made Romanian corruption an Europe-wide concern and coined the unforgettable phrase “if everybody is corrupt, then surely nobody is”.

Severin had quite a political career before his recent incarceration on corruption charges. A lecturer in political matters at the Communist-era Romanian party cadre academy, Severin became a politician after 1989. He served almost continuously as a Democratic Party and, later, Social Democratic Party MP in the Lower House of Parliament, and was one of the leading voices in parliamentary foreign policy circles. His expertise earned him a one year stint as Foreign Affairs Minister in the nineties, a decade in which he also served in several international bodies as an international law expert. Severin’s career as an MP ended with Romania’s accession to the European Union when he became one of the first batch of Romanian MEPs, on a Social Democratic ticket. By all accounts Severin was well respected by Social Democratic MEPs. This, however, would not last.

In 2011, Sunday Times reporters posed as stakeholders trying to influence European legislation and asked several MEPs to lobby on their behalf in order to pass a legal amendment. Of the three that bit and were subsequently recorded by hidden camera one was Adrian Severin who asked for a down payment of €12000 and a total of €100000 yearly for him to lobby on their behalf. When the piece hit the newsstands causing European uproar, Severin was baffled at the backlash both in the Social-Democratic group and the media. He claimed to have done nothing wrong and protested his innocence. Of course, as a legal scholar Severin was well aware of the consequence of influence peddling and receiving bribes. The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) launched an inquiry, which ended with Severin’s resignation — alongside the Slovenian and Austrian MEPs who had also been caught on film. Unlike the other two however, Severin flatly refused, prompting an embarrassing motion where the Social Democrats had to throw him out of the group. Severin finished out his term as a disgraced independent but tenuously holding on to his Parliamentary Immunity. His troubles, however, were only beginning.

In 2013, the Romanian Anticorruption Directorate indicted Severin for influence peddling and receiving bribes in relation to the European Parliament corruption case. In October 2016, the sentence came down, with Severin being sentenced to three years and three months in prison.

His appeal, however, was quite a public one. Severin staged a press conference on the topic of corruption and hosted a public debate on what corruption truly means. It was there, surrounded by such luminaries such as current Senate president Călin-Popescu Tăriceanu, former Justice minister Rodica Stănoiu and a host of others that Severin first uttered his maxim:

If everybody is corrupt, then, surely, nobody is. When too many people break a law then it is the law that is at fault. Corruption is deviancy, and we cannot all be deviants!” Severin finished with a flurry: “A free judiciary has to guarantee freedoms, not restrain them. And what we are seeing here is that, by insisting on punitive aspects, the free judiciary is becoming the hangman of freedoms!

Alas, Severin’s public appeal seemed to be marginally more successful than his legal one. A month later his final sentence came through — four years in prison. Ever philosophical, Severin declared that the “farce is now over, or at least this act of it.” He turned himself in to the police later that day.

However, like in Plato’s allegory of the cave, there is still a shadow of Severin’s philosophising reflected upon the wall of governance. In 2017, after mass street protests managed to force the hand of the PSD government and stop it from passing legislation widely seen as hindering the fight against corruption, Severin sent a public message to PSD leader Liviu Dragnea from prison:

What I’m seeing now is unbelievable! A government asking forgiveness for governing, a Parliament asking forgiveness for legislating! Parties excusing themselves for winning elections. So I say this to Dragnea, if you’re to go down, go down with dignity. Prison is much easier for a man who still has his honour.

Ever philosophical, and apparently still in possession of his honour, if not a honourable reputation, Severin has not — as of yet — asked for forgiveness for anything. He is eligible for parole sometime in the next two years.