21st Sep 2020

Brussels stutters over transparency text

A key European Commission transparency text that may one day lift the lid on Brussels' lobbying and farm aid has been delayed due to "minor details".

Administration commissioner Siim Kallas' new transparency plan was up for adoption by the commission Tuesday (25 October), but was bumped off the agenda at the last minute by president Jose Manuel Barroso's cabinet, a source confirmed.

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  • Danish people were surprised to learn the EU subsidises its royal family (Photo: EUobserver)

Based on Mr Kallas' speech to a think-tank last week, the draft text proposes member states should be legally obliged to publish the individual beneficiaries of EU farm and structural funds.

It also calls for lobbyists and NGOs to register activities in Brussels and for EU civil servants to adopt a common code of conduct on accepting gifts for example.

"The president's cabinet will look again at the ways and means to present this, whether as a green paper or a communication", Mr Barroso's spokeswoman Francois Le Bail said, confirming that it will now come up before the next commission meeting on 9 November.

"It's also about the practical details. We have 350,000 recipients of funds for cultural projects alone. If we were to create a database, we would have to employ 50 people just to update it. But the information already exists, so maybe we can just link to it", she explained.

Commission denies split

Ms Le Bail denied that there is any kind of disagreement over the substance of the text however, despite suggestions to the contrary by Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

Gazeta Wyborcza on Monday reported that Mr Barroso and over half the other 24 commissioners want to "weaken" the document in a clash between a Nordic culture of openness, represented by Mr Kallas and communications chief Margot Wallstrom, and Mediterranean traditions of government opacity.

She said the transparency project has been on the president's agenda since he took office in 2004, adding that it was spurred on by the Spiros Latsis affair this spring, when media found out that Mr Barroso accepted a free holiday on his friend's luxury yacht.

Shades of Denmark

The delays over the details of Mr Kallas' transparency text also recalls Denmark's torturous publication of EU farm aid payments in June last year.

It took veteran journalist Kjeld Hansen and the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting 18 months to prise the information out of Copenhagen.

The authorities denied original requests for the information claiming the data was dispersed in too many files, as Mr Hansen told EUobserver in an article last month.

In the end, it transpired that officials like the former Danish minister for food and agriculture and current farm commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, the Danish royal family and major corporations such as Danisco gobbled up most of the €1.34 billion of EU aid.

England (but not the UK) and the Netherlands have since followed Denmark, while Estonia, Spain, Greece, Sweden and Ireland have published partial records.

Big bucks at stake

EU farm aid was worth €43 billion last year, almost half the entire budget, with France and Germany trousering the most with €9.4 billion and €6.7 billion, respectively.

On the lobbying side, Mr Kallas estimates the EU pays NGOs €2 billion a year intended to be channelled to developing countries, while public affairs firms working in Brussels generate income of €60 to €90 million a year.

It is unclear at this stage whether his transparency ideas will ever become European law, or if the commission will simply float the suggestion to MEPs and member states and leave it at that, however.

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