Attendees at the “Who wants to be a farm-subsidy millionaire?” press conference in Brussels on the 7th May 2009 could be forgiven for thinking they had wandered into campaigning-NGO heaven. The panel included representatives from farmsubsidy.org, GMF (the German Marshall Fund), wobbing.eu, Transparency International and fishsubsidy.org.
The focus of the event was clear however. Which European regions and organisations had benefited most from CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) largesse in the last financial year, and to what extent.
The speakers explained to a packed room how, despite the failure of the German government to deliver its own national data to the European Commission as required, enough information had been collected to draw up a league table of the greatest CAP beneficiaries.
CAP – who benefits?
Danish investigative journalist Nils Mulvard explained that France, Italy and Spain benefited the most from CAP funds in 2008, to the tune of some 35.8 billion euro out of the 55 billion total. He enticed us with further tidbits of information, for example that Italy had the most CAP millionaires (180), closely followed by Spain (165) and France (142). In total, CAP created some 710 euro millionaires in 2008.
It seems that it was the sugar industry that benefited the most from CAP support last year. Sugar production companies came first in the CAP league table in several major European economies. However, as Kristian Schmidt, Deputy Head of Cabinet for European Commissioner Siim Kallas pointed out, this was something of a one-off, as much of this funding was to support production reform in the sector.
The audience were also presented with a series of tables showing which countries had complied fully with the CAP data availability requirements, which had “gone through the motions” (i.e. by supplying reams of poorly formatted data in paper form), and which had failed to comply at all.
All in all, the presentations on the ins and outs of CAP from Jack Thurston (farmsubsidy.org and GMF) and colleague Nils Mulvard were a fascinating insight into what is, still, the largest single funding source of the European Union. More information can be found at the websites www.farmsubsidy.org and www.followthemoney.eu, with a further angle from Birdlife International.
Why data access important
Journalist Brigitte Alfter of wobbing.eu stressed the importance of following the money trail, acknowledging that for EU funding this usually meant some pretty complex cross-border sleuthing. “All this,” she said, “just so that we can get some good hard data that we can refer to!” However there is still work to do, she said, in getting data from all parts of the EU in comparable formats, and she pointed out that the more it is made available online, then the more accessible it becomes for everyone, European Commission included.
Presenter Marcus Knigge seized the moment to plug a website on a similar theme, www.fishsubsidy.org, which would be going live on June 25th. While admitting that the site is dedicated more to the environment than to transparency, he said fish subsidies were high on the EU political agenda, so deserving of scrutiny.
He reminded his audience that around 88% of EU fish stocks are considered over-fished, and that 35% of them are already outside safe biological limits for breeding. There are simply too many fishing vessels catching too few fish, he said, pointing out that 87% of fish subsidies went to 20% of European ports, while 78% of these subsidies went to 20% of the vessels.
Disclosure necessary to democracy
It was left to Jana Mittermaier of Transparency International to remind us of the obvious. That while the fact of the Commission and the member states supplying such information is good, surely it could be made much more easily available without having to struggle through fragmented data. Clearly some member states, e.g. Germany and Slovenia, were trying to avoid complying with the regulatory system.
“EU citizens have a right to see where their taxes go and who the beneficiaries are,” she reminded us. “If the EU and the member states won’t disclose that information, then other people will.”
Besides which, she said, proper disclosure of where the money goes helps the EU institutions polish their image. “Full disclosure of farm subsidies will help in the policy area,” she said, “by improving the reputation of EU funding, and ultimately helping the farmers themselves.” She concluded, “Disclosure is a key element in democracy.”
See this Guardian article for the background: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/jan/22/mondaymediasection.freedomofinformation
© Philip Hunt 2009.