Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Investigation

Farmers among new MEPs deciding on EU farming money

  • Asger Christensen (l) was elected to the European Parliament. The liberal MEP has joined the agriculture committee, but also earns €20,000 gross a month as a farmer. (Photo: Venstre)

At least eight MEPs who have joined the European Parliament's agriculture committee as a member (or substitute member) have declared that they plan to continue earning money from farming activities - creating potential conflicts of interest.

The eight come from all across the EU and from different political groups: the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the liberal Renew Europe group, and the Greens.

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  • Green MEP Sarah Wiener co-owns an organic farm, which received over €300,000 in EU subsidies in 2018 (Photo: italiagermaniablog)

Danish Renew Europe member Asger Christensen declared he earned a monthly €20,000 as a farmer before becoming an MEP, and that he will continue to do so (under the heading "the regular remunerated activity which I undertake alongside the exercise of my office").

Polish MEP Jaroslaw Kalinowski, a member of the EPP, declared that before becoming an MEP he was earning between €1,000 and €5,000 from "gospodarstwo rolne" [Polish for "farm"] and that he would earn the same during his mandate as MEP.

French Green MEP Benoit Biteau, and his compatriot Jeremy Decercle (Renew Europe) both declared they would continue to earn €500 to €1,000 per month as farmers.

Another Renew Europe member of the agriculture committee, Germany's Ulrike Mueller, reported a similar monthly income from her farm.

Martin Hausling, a German Green MEP, meanwhile declared that he would earn less than €500 per month from farming.

CAP subsidies

But in 2018, his organic farm in Bad Zwesten received some €56,000 in subsidies from the common agriculture policy (CAP), according to Germany's official database of CAP recipients.

The year before, the Hausling farm received almost €48,000, up from almost €35,000 in 2014. Hausling was also a member of the agriculture committee over the past five years, and closely involved in fine-tuning new rules for organic farmers.

The coming months for the agriculture committee are a crucial period for negotiations on the common agriculture policy (CAP), which involves a reform of the rules as well as a considerable part of the EU budget.

According to the European Parliament's code of conduct, there is 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".

Thinking of how your farm may be affected by the reform of the CAP, instead of the broader public interest, could be one of those "personal interests".

There is an exemption in the code of conduct though.

"A conflict of interest does not exist where a member benefits only as a member of the general public or of a broad class of persons."

It is thus open to interpretation whether being a farmer constitutes as being a member of a broad class of persons.

Subs bench

The agriculture committee has 48 full members and 46 substitute members.

Substitute members can be just as powerful as regular members, as it is up to MEPs themselves to decide on being substituted for a particular meeting or vote.

Among those substitutes is Franc Bogovic (EPP, Slovenia), who declared he earned between €1,000 and €5,000 every month from being a farmer, and would continue to do so.

Bogovic was also a substitute member of the agriculture committee during the previous parliament mandate.

Since July 2014 he has also been a full member of the parliament's committee on regional development, in whose name he wrote an opinion with suggestions how to amend the proposed new rules for the EU's common agriculture policy.

Dutch dairy farmer Jan Huitema (Renew Europe) is another substitute member of the agriculture committee. During the previous term, he was a full member.

In 2017, he told EUobserver that he did not see a problem with his being a member of the agriculture committee while the farm he co-owned with his parents in the north of the Netherlands was receiving CAP subsidies.

"I think it is important to be clear and transparent, and I am," said Huitema.

There are also (substitute) members of the agriculture committee that have not declared direct income from farming activities, but who may still be in a conflict of interest.

Newly elected French MEP Irene Tolleret (Renew Europe), a substitute member of the agriculture committee, is a winegrower.

Austrian TV chef

Another newcomer is Austrian MEP Sarah Wiener (Greens), a full member of the agriculture committee.

Wiener declared she would earn between €1,000 and €5,000 from her company Sarah Wiener GmbH.

In a phone interview, Wiener stressed that this company "had nothing to do" with agriculture.

Since 2015, Wiener, known by some as a TV chef, also co-owned an organic farm, Gut Kerkow.

According to the official German database of CAP recipients, Gut Kerkow received over €300,000 in EU subsidies in 2018.

Wiener said she and her partners bought the farm to make sure it became more sustainable, and that it was not even profitable.

She suggested that EUobserver should have waited with reporting on this issue until it had investigated actual voting behaviour by MEPs, to determine whether there was indeed a conflict of interest.

"You can't say: because you are a farmer, this is a conflict of interest."

"Maybe there are farmers who just want more money," she said. "That's not my opinion, or the opinion of the Greens."

"Not everyone is just an egoist that thinks about his own small interest," said Wiener.

Simone Schmiedtbauer (EPP) is another MEP elected in Austria.

According to her declaration of interests, she will not earn money as a farmer.

She did declare she would continue, during her MEP mandate, an unremunerated position as deputy regional head for the Austrian farmers union, the Bauernbund.

The farmers' union website described Schmiedtbauer as the union's candidate, and reported that she runs a farm with her husband.

All income figures declared by MEPs are gross.

They come on top of their monthly salary of €6,824.85 (after EU taxes and insurance), a flat-rate daily allowance of €320 for every official day spent in Brussels or Strasbourg, and a no-questions-asked monthly office allowance of €4,513.

This article was updated on Wednesday 24 July 2019, to include comments from MEP Sarah Wiener.

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