The European Court of Justice yesterday published a ruling which says that the current EU laws and regulations on disclosure of beneficiaries of farm subsidies are ‘invalid’.
The ruling states that:
“[The laws] are invalid in so far as, with regard to natural persons who are beneficiaries of EAGF and EAFRD aid, those provisions impose an obligation to publish personal data relating to each beneficiary without drawing a distinction based on relevant criteria such as the periods during which those persons have received such aid, the frequency of such aid or the nature and amount thereof.”
Farmsubsidy.org is a project run by a small group of journalists and activists who believe that citizens have a right to know what governments are doing on their behalf and how public money is being spent.
We are not lawyers, and it will take some time to digest the judgment and its implications. Specifically, we do not know what is meant by paragraphs 80-83 of the judgment. It appears as though the Court is saying that publication of beneficiaries might take another form, though it is not clear what form that might be. It is evident that the Court considers there is a clear public interest in the data being published and has left the door open to an improved transparency regime. The same argument was made by EU Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston in her opinion on the case.
However, a few general points are worth making at this time.
The CAP is a system of state subsidies to farm businesses. Subsidies are paid on the basis of a recipient’s professional activities as a farmer and they are only available to farm businesses and certain food and rural enterprises. There is no relationship between the eligibility for a farm subsidy and the recipient’s personal or private life. Farm subsidies are not welfare payments. There is no means test. They do not relate to an individual recipient’s personal circumstances, rather to their professional activities as a farmer. Unlike some means tested social welfare payments, there is no shame or social stigma associated with receiving a farm subsidy.
The publication of information about individual subsidy payments reveals nothing about the recipient’s private life or personal economic situation. All it says is that they own a business which received a subsidy. It doesn’t tell us if the owner of the business is young or old, rich or poor, white, black, gay or straight, or anything that a reasonable person might deem to be personal or private. It doesn’t even tell us anything about the revenue of the business, just the amount of revenue received from public funds.
It is very hard to regard transparency of the subsidy system as a significant invasion of the right to personal privacy. On the other hand, there is a very real public interest in transparency of public funds in the common agricultural policy (CAP). We believe the public interest far outweighs any possible privacy concerns.
The CAP costs €55 billion every year and has major impacts on the food we eat, the way land is used, and the quality of the environment around us. Yet opinion polls reveal that the European public knows next to nothing about the CAP, even though it costs each European household around €1000 a year. What better way is there for the public to understand what the CAP is and how it works than by being able to find out who gets the money, how much they get, and, critically, why they get it?
Concrete information relating to real farms in real places, particularly when it relates to the actual places where each of us lives, is far better a tool for public education than remote, abstract, aggregate figures from a budget document. When the European Union is funding the construction of a new bridge, a great big hoarding is put up explaining that the work underway is being funded by the EU and by how much. EU subsidies to farm businesses should be subject to the same openness and in the 21st century, this is most efficiently achieved by publishing the data in an electronic format, whether online or otherwise.
Besides enabling citizens to find out more about how the CAP works, transparency means farm subsidies are subject to a greater degree of public scrutiny. This is a valuable safeguard against the fraud and abuse that is an inevitable risk to any large government spending programme. To take just one example, earlier this year, the disclosure of farm subsidy data to investigative reporters resulted in a criminal investigation of the former Bulgarian farms minister, whose family were among the country’s top recipients. There will always be limits to what the government checks can detect. The additional oversight function provided by transparent budgets is long established. Transparency is a powerful deterrent to potential fraudsters. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best of disinfectants.
We have always said that the rules for transparency in farm subsidies agreed by the Council and Commission , while an improvement over the previous regime of near total secrecy, are defective. Our view is shared by the Court and by the European Union Advocate General. There are a number of reasons why the objectives of enabling a public debate on the future of the policy are not properly met by the current rules. In our view the most important is that the current rules give us no idea why the money was paid.
We hope that this Court ruling will result in a new and improved transparency regime for the CAP and await the response of the Commission and Council. We stand by to help in any way we can. While some governments (e.g. Ireland and Germany) have wasted no time in removing previously published data on farm subsidy payments, we will continue to make all the data we have obtained available on our online database.
Jack Thurston Nils Mulvad Brigitte Alfter Co-founders, www.farmsubsidy.org