UK delays publication of EU farm subsidy details till post-election
Britain's civil service has decided to delay the publication of farm subsidy payments until after this Thursday's (6 May) general election. The deadline for publishing the data outlining who received what under the EU's common agricultural policy (CAP) was midnight last Friday.
A message on the UK's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website simply says: "Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election."
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UK officials said the practice is standard procedure. "It is not appropriate for us to publish this information at this point on the basis that some of the details may refer to people standing for election," Defra spokesman Paul Leat told this website.
"It could be seen to be favouring the ruling party of specific individuals," he added.
Conservative politicians, some of whom are large landowners, usually outdo their Labour and Liberal colleagues when it comes to receiving CAP payments, causing potential embarrassment ahead of the vote.
The European Commission said it was unhappy, however. "The commission is disappointed and is going to write to the British authorities underlining that this is not in line with the directive," said EU agriculture spokesman Roger Waite.
Last year, Germany initially held off from publishing details on who received what under the CAP in 2008, the first year for which the new EU's rules applied. It eventually capitulated in June.
Politicians in the southern state of Bavaria held out for even longer, concerned that payment details could factor into the regional elections being held last September. In the end, it too backed down after the commission started infringement proceedings.
A number of German citizens are currently challenging the legality of the new procedure on the grounds that it contravenes data protection rights. The European Court of Justice is due to rule before the end of this year.
Details of who receives what under the EU's controversial agricultural policy caused a stir last year when it was discovered that some of the largest recipients were businesses and independently wealthy individuals.
One Spanish construction company in northeast Spain, Arids Roma, received €1.59 million in farm subsidies from the European Union, with Queen Elizabeth II of England and Prince Albert II of Monaco also among the largest beneficiaries. CAP spending in 2008 exceeded €50 billion, by far the largest slice of the EU budget.
Analysts have speculated that the decision by UK civil servants may be linked to the expected change of government in the country, with the Conservative party currently holding a narrow lead in opinion polls.
"Perhaps the civil servants are trying to curry favour with their new bosses," suggested Jack Thurston from agricultural watchdog group Farm Subsidy.
Mr Thurston is currently holed up with a team of researchers in an office in the Brussels' Port De Namur area, poring over data provided by other member states in an effort to identify possible abuses of the EU policy.
The team use "web-scrapers" to go through the figures, computer software programmes that search the data at a faster rate than is humanly possible.
Despite the UK decision to temporary withhold figures, Mr Thurston says France is one the worst offenders when it comes to the transparency of CAP payments.
Member states are obliged to publish the data on national departmental websites. Some, such as the Czech Republic, choose to publish the data in a single downloadable format, while others require internet users to search by region or name, making it far harder to get an overall picture.
"The French website is proving a little problematic," he said. "You can only get 500 results when you search the page."
Italian and Portuguese data is also difficult to access.
"Some governments want to control the data without giving it easily to third parties. They are following the legislation in theory but not in practice," Mr Thurston added.
The group is set to publish its initial findings this Tuesday, concentrating in particular on the bloc's "subsidy millionaires," individuals or businesses who receive over €1 million from the EU policy.
Sugar companies look set to top the list again, with French companies Tereos (€117.9 million) and Saint Louis Sucre (€143.7 million euros) among the top recipients.
EU officials said the sugar sector benefited from special export subsidies in 2009. CAP export aids which enable European exporters to remain competitive on world markets by compensating for the EU's higher prices are blamed by development agencies for stifling agriculture in some of the world's poorest regions.