In Britain -- where the main European policy goal often seems like the elimination of European Union agriculture subsidies -- news this week that fat cat conglomerates rather than family farms are the main beneficiaries of Brussels agricultural money will only further energize euroskeptics.
This week, British researcher Jack Thurston released a report at farmsubsidy.org exploring EU subsidies in Britain's dairy industry. The study found that three large corporations claimed about half of the United Kingdom's export subsidy cash in 2004-2005 for "milk and dairy products" by sending powdered milk to the developing world. Some of the milk products didn't even get that far: Instead of going to countries like Nigeria or Ivory Coast they went to offshore oil rigs or providers of in-flight meals. (Under EU rules, milk or milk products served on international flights count as "exports.")
Farm subsidies in the EU have been controversial for years, and most of the EU budget quits being transparent after the money leaves Brussels. Thurston made a name for himself internationally last year when he started using Freedom of Information requests to follow the money trail as farm subsidies made their way to UK businesses. The data amounts to a tiny sample of a hugely complex, €43 billion-euro system of farm subsidies, intended to support European farmers, but it's certainly eye-opening.
Recent investigations into European farm subsidies showed that hundreds of millions of euros in taxpayer money flows not to small farmers, but to landowners, agribusiness and even Queen Elizabeth II. Nestle's United Kingdom operations claimed about €40 million euros in help from the EU in 2003-2004, and the queen got €700,000. The sugar company Tate & Lyle receieved €300,000.
"A lot of Europeans think that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is something that supports small farmers, but most of the money goes to the richest people in the system," Thurston said last year, after he released his first batch of data, which broke the news that British royals like Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Westminster received EU money because they own so much land.
The EU's anti-fraud commissioner, Siim Kallas, is now pushing for more accountability for EU funds in national budgets throughout Europe. But he has powerful opponents. The French government criticizes his initiative as "an attack on the CAP." Other critics have complained that "it will produce a lot of negative stories about EU funds," Kallas told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. But he thinks transparency is the only way to go. "If you keep this information confidential, you fuel suspicion that funds are misused," he said.