Thursday

20th Jan 2022

Opinion

Putting the ditherers on the defensive

In the summer of 2004, Denmark became the first country in the European Union to publish a national register of the names of individuals and companies receiving a collective total of 1.34 billion Euros in EU annual farm subsidies distributed by the Danish Government.

The publication of the figures hit the headlines, and the fact that support worth many millions was going to Princes, peers of the realm, estate owners and other millionaires, not to mention food corporations such as Arla, Danish Crown and Danisco was greeted with incredulity.

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The list also included the names of Danish politicians such as Mariann Fischer Boel (then Minister of Food and Agriculture), the Minister of Economics and Business Affairs, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Education and many leading members of parliament as well as former ministers and politicians.

Many observers were also surprised to see that several public authorities such as the Danish Prison Service together with the National Forest and Nature Agency and the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences were each able to acquire a significant EU subsidy.

The biggest obstacle in the battle for "the right to know" what is spent by Danish and other European taxpayers was the intransigence of the Danish Ministry of Food and Agriculture, which constantly denied that it possessed all the relevant information in a ‘single document’.

According to the Minister, the data was dispersed across the Ministry (e.g. in many documents in different offices), and therefore the Ministry was not obliged to hand over the information.

Also the Ministry tried to make the case disappear by trying to argue that the data did not fall within the legal definition of a single document.

This claim, which turned out to be untenable, was the key to the subsequent unravelling of the case.

As it happened, the authorities were being less than truthful because the data was available in one electronic file.

Having been called in to investigate, the Ombudsman severely censured the parties involved by issuing a formal rebuke over the Ministry’s attempts to disguise the facts.

It took me and my colleague, Nils Mulvad, a trained reporter and director of the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting (DICAR) 18 months of work to acquire the data.

DICAR has subsequently published all the data from the year 2000 onwards, and is also currently building a multilingual database containing CAP information from all the countries that have published data so far. This database should be fully operational by October 2005.

Small farmers - small benefits

Figures for those receiving subsidies followed for the UK (excluding Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) in January 2005.

The Netherlands has recently followed suit, with part publication of the information in Estonia, Spain, Greece, Sweden and Ireland.

In every country, the gnawing suspicion first exposed in Denmark in the summer of 2004 was confirmed, namely that small farmers are not the main beneficiaries of EU agricultural support.

In fact, although agricultural subsidies account for half the EU budget, the future development prospects of rural areas appear bleak and, despite CAP reforms implemented this year, the monstrous doling out of billions of euros is leading to the break up of rural communities rather than the reverse.

Research into the effects of this gargantuan generosity throws up three significant problems:

- Firstly, agricultural subsidies ‘steal’ a huge amount of resources that could otherwise be invested in education and R&D in the EU.

Far too much money is spent on passively supporting an affluent minority instead of actively investing in a common future. Simultaneously this generous support crucially keeps cheaper Third World farm products out of the European market.

- Secondly, subsidies encourage the ongoing deterioration of wildlife and the environment across Europe.

Generally speaking it is true that wildlife and the environment decline when subsidised industrialised farming is introduced.

Denmark is a perfect example of this trend: a government commission concluded in November 2001 that "the quality of Danish wildlife and biodiversity had never previously been so poor" despite the fact that Denmark is one of the richest countries in the world.

Protests that are already being heard from the 10 new member states include: drowning in pig slurry, polluted water tables, disappearing storks, and the countryside being bought up by foreign agro speculators forcing locals from their homes.

- Finally, the revelation that many politicians (including amongst others the Danish EU agricultural Commissioner and the Dutch Minister for Agriculture) are benefiting handsomely from the comprehensive subsidy regime, increasingly makes a mockery of the whole idea of the EU.

More and more citizens suspiciously ask: "What is the EU really for – the wider population or an exclusive group of multinational food corporations and their affluent friends in the political system?"

Transnational speculation

But now, thanks to DICAR’s initiatives, the ditherers are on the defensive; country after country is latching onto the idea, either pressurised or coerced through the courts to reveal the beneficiaries of ordinary citizens’ hard-earned tax contributions.

It will make interesting reading when the first Eastern European countries open up these hitherto secret accounts to disclose who receives the Euro millions in agricultural subsidies.

No doubt the figures will reveal a web of transnational speculation running into billions.

In some countries it is also rumoured that a particular type of agromafia specialising in EU subsidy swindles is already active.

Today we know that in Poland, ordinary farmers and their families are not the main beneficiaries of EU largesse.

Polish farmers increasingly have to quit their holdings, replaced by Danish, Dutch, American and other leading agricultural millionaires that long ago set their sights on profitable Polish farming prospects.

They have the resources – subsidies – to conquer the world and control production. One example of this is Europe’s biggest pig farm Poldanor: located in Poland but owned by 60 Danish pig farmers.

Openness and transparency require much more than party speeches and good intentions; and this applies both to economic support from the EU and the public support for the EU.

The EU could have published the figures showing the beneficiaries of the billions long ago, as all the data has been recorded in Brussels for years.

Mrs Fischer Boel, the EU Agricultural Commissioner has recently gone on record to say that she favours transparency surrounding the whole issue of subsidies, but that has been said before.

Now words without actions are no longer enough. The Commissioner is about to be overtaken in the slow lane by wronged citizens and focused journalists throughout the EU.

The author is a Danish freelance journalist and author of several books on nature, environment and development. He can be reached at baeredygtighed@vip.cybercity.dk

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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