MEPs on agriculture committee get €100,000 in farm payments
By Peter Teffer
At least three members of the European Parliament's agriculture committee have received EU farm subsidies, raising potential conflicts of interest.
Farming companies owned or co-owned by MEPs Jan Huitema, John Stuart Agnew, and Martin Hausling, together received more than €100,000 in 2015, according to official information from their home member states obtained by EUobserver.
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Since 2014, member states are obliged to publish the names of beneficiaries of the EU farm subsidies, part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
As members of the agriculture committee, Huitema, Agnew and Hausling, may have influence over legislation that affects their income.
For example, the committee is likely to have an influence on a forthcoming EU Commission strategy paper on how the CAP should be changed after 2020.
Dutch MEP Huitema, of the Liberal party, told this website he had always been transparent about being a farmer.
The farm he co-owns with his parents in the north of the Netherlands received €29,015.05 in farm subsidies in 2014, and €29,212.79 in 2015.
Huitema, elected in 2014, told EUobserver he campaigned with the slogan “farmer seeks vote”.
“It was very clear that I am a dairy farmer,” said Huitema, a member of prime minister Mark Rutte's VVD party.
"And I am not here for myself, I am here for all farmers in the European Union."
He noted he was elected with preference votes and that his voters “apparently” did not see a problem.
“I think it is important to be clear and transparent, and I am,” said Huitema, adding that he also wanted to make sure that the parliament's agriculture committee is made up of people who know the agriculture business.
However, not every MEP took the same approach.
Dutch MEP Annie Schreijer-Pierik, of the centre-right Christian-Democrat party that sits with the European People's Party, also geared her election campaign in 2014 towards Dutch farmers, and was also elected through preference votes.
However, after being elected in 2014, she dissolved her company.
“This was a principled decision,” said her spokesman Kees Bos. “She wanted to prevent any conflict of interest.”
Bos added that it was an “emotional” decision to part with the farm. Her son is now in charge of the farm, but it is a separate legal entity.
The European Parliament's rules of procedure say MEPs are responsible for submitting a “declaration of financial interests”.
If the parliament's president thinks the declaration is “substantially incorrect”, a process may be started which could lead to the sanction that the MEP in question can no longer be elected as office-holder, appointed rapporteur, or take part in an official delegation.
The three MEPs have declared they receive income as farmers, but did not specify this included EU subsidies.
The parliament's code of conduct defines a conflict of interest when an MEP “has a personal interest that could improperly influence the performance of his or her duties as a Member”, but also says such a conflict does not exist when that MEP “benefits only as a member of the general public or of a broad class of persons”.
Martin Pigeon of the Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based civil society pressure group focused on lobbying, said the issue was not clear-cut.
“Farmers are not a homogeneous group, politically, economically, socially. This means their interests regarding the CAP subsidies can be widely different,” he told EUobserver in an e-mail.
But he gave some examples of situations that he would consider a conflict of interest: when the committee votes about the existence of subsidies for farmers or not, or if the vote is about capping subsidies at a certain threshold.
Another example Pigeon gave was a vote about new stricter rules on ecological farming. Those MEP-farmers who do not already have environmentally conscious farms “would be in a conflict of interest situation”.
EU funds for anti-EU MEP
British MEP John Stuart Agnew told EUobserver in an e-mail that at least 10 members of the agriculture committee say they are farmers.
The issue of conflict of interest was “occassionally” raised, said Agnew, of the anti-EU Ukip party.
The farm registered on his address received around €50,000 in EU subsidies in 2015 and around €57,000 in 2014. Without the EU subsidies, his farm would have made a loss in each of the past seven years, he said.
Agnew said in 2009, when he first stood for election, then Ukip party leader Nigel Farage had said that if elected “farmer Stuart Agnew” would sit on the agriculture committee.
“There was no challenge to this from the press at the time,” he wrote, adding that as a farmer he also was adept to evaluate how EU commission proposals will work in practice.
“It is essential that Committee members have some idea what the practical impact will be of the bureaucrats suggestions down on the farm,” said Agnew.
Agnew compared his situation to that of female MEPs in the committee on women's rights and gender equality, and noted there was no objection from the European Parliament's Secretariat.
“We are informed by the secretariat that whilst women sit on the FEMME Committee, fisherman sit on the PECHE Committee and employees sit on the Employment Committee, there will be no problem with farmers sitting on the AGRI Committee,” wrote Agnew.
Of course, that comparison does not hold: women do not receive EU subsidies for being female.
German MEP Martin Hausling, of the Green party, received €35,744.00 in total in 2015, and €34,895.95 in 2014.
Hausling has not responded to a request for comment sent on Monday (23 January).
EUobserver was not able to determine if French members of the agriculture committee received any CAP payments because the French database has not been properly working in recent days. Data for 2016 was not yet available.
EU commissioner for agriculture Phil Hogan told EUobserver it was a matter for the European Parliament.
“They make the rules about conflicts of interests. I'm not going to express any view about what the rules of the European Parliament should be,” said Hogan on Monday.