Tuesday

21st Aug 2018

Does Belgium's mail company need EU farm money?

  • MEPs said this week that EU agriculture subsidies should be given mostly to 'those who are actively farming in order to earn their living' (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission will announce on Friday (1 June) how it will reform the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

One aspect of the reform will be an attempt to make sure that the farming subsidies go to actual farmers, by capping the maximum amount of subsidies at €60,000.

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However, a dive into the national databases of subsidy recipients showed that the CAP funds have some unexpected beneficiaries which remain below that figure.

Sometimes so unexpected, that spokespeople for the recipients had no idea.

"We received agriculture subsidies?" said a spokeswoman for Belgium's partly privatised mail company Bpost incredulously, when called by this website.

According to Belgium's central register, Bpost received €1,702.72 in the period between 16 October 2015 and 15 October 2016.

On Friday afternoon, after this article was published, Bpost spokeswoman Barbara Van Speybroeck told EUobserver by email that the money was received to cover one-time costs for a communication campaign on 'school fruit', specifically, on the distribution of posters.

Thursday (31 May) was the last day by which member states were due to update their databases with the figures for the year that ended in October 2017.

Other surprising recipients included the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Malta's Valletta. It received €1,337.75 in 2016, according to Malta's official database.

Following publication of this article, the deputy CEO of the Mediterranean Conference Centre explained by email that it had received the money to organise a meeting held by the monitoring committee of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural development.

While these examples are not huge sums in the grand scheme of things, in Belgium alone there were more than a thousand farmers who received less than €1,000 last year.

The life sciences faculty of the Humboldt university in Berlin received €9,865.73 in EU farming subsidies in the most recent period, and an almost identical sum during the 12 months before.

A spokesman for the university also did not immediately understand the question, and said that he might need until next Monday find the answer.

Genuine farmers

According to the latest leaked draft of the proposal, seen by this website, the commission will leave it to member states to define what a "genuine farmer" is.

The commission did note in the draft that 'genuine farmer' should be defined "in a way to ensure that no support is granted to those whose agricultural activity forms only an insignificant part of their overall economic activities or whose principle business activity is not agricultural".

This week, members of the European Parliament called on the European Commission to make sure that CAP subsidies were used to help actual farmers.

In a non-binding text about the future of European farming and the CAP adopted on Wednesday (30 May), a broad majority of MEPs said that they believed "that it is essential to ensure that support is targeted to genuine farmers, with a focus on those who are actively farming in order to earn their living".

It followed the adoption of a text about the same topic by another EU body, the advisory European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The EESC said that the CAP's direct payments should only go to active farmers and agricultural enterprises.

"It's not enough to be just the owner of agricultural land," said EESC member Jarmila Dubravska.

While it seems common sense to say that farming funds should go to farmers, there is an extra dimension to stressing that.

With the UK on its way out, the British contribution to the EU budget is also leaving.

The size of the CAP pot will shrink, although it is still unclear by how much.

Following the presentation of the commission's proposed seven-year budget (2021-2027), farming commissioner Phil Hogan said that the budget cuts to the CAP would be around five percent.

The direct payments would only be reduced by 3.9 percent at most, with five member states even seeing an increase, Hogan said.

But those figures have since been contested.

The European Parliament itself said that the actual budget cuts should be calculated in constant prices – to take inflation into account. It said that the CAP would actually shrink by more than 15 percent, and that direct payments would decrease by over 10 percent.

On Wednesday, French newspaper Le Monde said it had seen an internal commission note which spoke of a 12 percent budget cut in constant prices – and an 8 percent cut in direct payments.

Conflict of interest

The proposal that is due to be unveiled on Friday will need to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, where national government representatives meet.

A recent Greenpeace report highlighted that there was a risk of conflict of interests in the parliament's agricultural committee.

It said that a 25 of the committee's 46 members had "strong links to the agriculture sector".

The report identified five MEPs on the committee who had directly received CAP subsidies, while two had a spouse or son that received such EU money.

Greenpeace noted in its report that it not yet been decided whether the agriculture committee would be the lead committee that will propose the parliament's amendments to the commission's proposal, or whether the environmental and food safety committee will have a role as well.

"This farming expertise is of course important in the reform of the CAP, but it should not eclipse the input of other experts," Greenpeace said.

"Agriculture has a significant impact on the environment, public health, climate change, the economy and other sectors, and yet there is a danger that experts in these fields will be prevented from playing a meaningful role in the reform of the CAP," it said.

In 2017, EUobserver reported that three MEPs on the agriculture committee received over €100,000 in CAP subsidies.

This article was updated on Friday 1 June 15:06 to include comments from Bpost and the Mediterranean Conference Centre. It was also corrected: the conference centre only received funds in 2016, not in 2017 as was earlier stated.

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