Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who receives farm subsidies from the EU?

April 28, 2009 / Business Report [South Africa], By Yacine Le Forestier

Some of Europe's most closely guarded secrets must be revealed by Thursday, when a deadline passes for nations to make public the beneficiaries of the EU's generous farm subsidies.

Those harvesting the subsidies - a system that eats up almost 40 percent of the EU's budget - among the 27 member nations must be listed publicly on internet sites, along with the amounts they earn.

And the sums are anything but paltry: EU aid to farmers in 2007 was about E55 billion (R643 billion at Monday's rate), with those in France being the leading beneficiaries.

The obligation to publish the payments dates from bitterly negotiated reforms in 2006 in the Common Agricultural Policy, first conceived to boost Europe's farm output in the wake of World War II.

Already last December, EU member states had to lift the veil of secrecy on a small part of the package when they had to reveal the recipients of so-called rural development aid.

But on Thursday it will be time to shine the light on the bulk of the handouts, when the 27 EU governments have to publish the names of those who receive direct farm subsidies.

Germany has dragged its feet, saying last week that it would not reveal recipients, after some of its courts ruled in cases brought by farmers that such disclosure represented a violation of their privacy.

"Transparency yes, but not of it is going to violate the rights of our citizens," said a spokesperson for the German agriculture ministry.

By refusing to reveal farm handout recipients, Germany is running the threat of being dragged by the European Commission before the European Court of Justice, which could lead to hefty fines.

"This is taxpayers' money, so it is very important that people know where it is being spent," said EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.

"Transparency should also improve the management of these funds, by reinforcing public control of how the money is used."

Critics of the Common Agricultural Policy say the subsidies contribute to higher food prices for European consumers, and undermine the ability of farmers in the developing world to break into the EU market.

The UK-based Farmsubsidy association, which has lobbied for years to get the shroud of secrecy on farm handouts to be lifted, blasted the German refusal as a "disgrace".

"The handful of politicians and judges in Germany who are opposing transparency are acting as the puppets of big agribusiness and wealthy landowners, whose only interest is to keep the German people in the dark," said Farmsubsidy campaigner Jack Thurston.

Data released so far in Germany has already caused some waves, with horse riding and ski clubs as well as sportscar tycoon Wolfgang Porsche emerging as recipients.

In Britain, where some data have been made public, figures have shown that the royal family has accepted EU farm subsidies - even though London is a fierce critic of the system.

Queen Elizabeth II, who has big farmland holdings, received £769 000 (R9.9 million) while her son Prince Charles got £300 000.

Those figures pale, however, against those of UK sugar conglomerate Tate and Lyle, which got well over £350 million from 2002/03 through 2004/05, according to Farmsubsidy.

France is the biggest national recipient of farm funds, taking in about 18 percent of the total, and the staunchest defender of the system, but Paris says it is going to publish individual beneficiaries.

So far, Farmsubsidy says only seven of the 27 EU countries have provided most of the data.