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21st May 2022

Billions in EU aid spent on ill-defined green projects, say auditors

  • Subsidies are not linked specifically to environmental problems, EU auditors say (Photo: European Commission)

More than a third of EU agro-environmental aid is given to farms that have no ecological problems on site or within a 10-km range, a study carried out by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) shows.

"The current policy is too vague to deliver tangible results and there are considerable problems in calculations and in differentiating between various regional and local conditions," Olavi Ala-Nissila, Finland's envoy to the EU court, said during a press conference on Monday (19 September) presenting the report.

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Out of the 203 contracts checked by the ECA from eight sample member states (old and new, northern and southern), 39 percent were linked to "no specific environmental problems in the area within a range of 10 kilometres around the farm that holds the contract or it is not possible to identify problems" the report said.

Since 2000, member sates have had to make agro-environmental payments in order to qualify for money from the EU common agricultural policy (CAP). For the period 2007-2013, national governments allocated €22.2 billion in EU funds to the programmes, but have kept the targets too broad for the auditors to be able to measure effectiveness.

According to Robert Markus, one of the authors of the report, some 80 percent of the measures are not targeted to specific problems on the ground, such as water pollution or soil erosion. "Even more so, 90 percent of the money goes on a first-come, first-served basis, with no selection procedures," he said during the same press event.

One of the causes is that farmers take part in the scheme on a voluntary basis and many are not keen on take on more paperwork, which is what the ECA's "targeted approach" would entail.

"What does this policy want? The national objectives are not clear, many are formulated in a different manner. In one case we found over 100 objectives," Markus said.

Some countries managed better than others. In the UK, the measures were very specific, such as giving funds to increase biodiversity and lower use of fertilisers in order to attain a minimum number of plant and animal species on a given hectare of grassland.

Several countries found it more difficult to establish a link between environmental problems and specific measures, however. In many cases, data needed for the ECA assessment was missing or incorrect. "The EU commission says more than 50 million hectares are targeted by agro-environmental measures. This figure is meaningless," Markus noted.

Jana Polakova, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy think-tank in Brussels disagreed

Targeted measures requiring more bureaucracy are perhaps an option for richer farmers, but simpler, general measures such as the reduction in the amount of fertiliser (which leads to a decrease in production compensated by the EU scheme) is the best approach in eastern European and Nordic countries she said.

"It's very difficult to apply rigorous scientific measurements on these measures, because some won't deliver after two years. Biodiversity is more complex than that," she added.

The audit findings are relevant in the battle for the next EU budget, where northern states are pushing for a cut in the expensive CAP system unless it is strongly linked to new green policies.

A reformed CAP is to be put forward by the commission next month, with "clearer elements linked to targets" a spokesman for the EU executive said on Monday.

A leaked draft of the proposal says "direct payments should promote sustainable production by assigning 30 percent of their budgetary envelope to mandatory measures that are beneficial to climate and the environment."

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