Who Gets EU Agriculture Subsidies? German Minister Blocking Push for Transparency

German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner doesn't want to follow an EU directive requiring member states to publish how much individual farmers receive in subsidies. She claims it is a matter of privacy, but some suspect Aigner is aiming to secure votes for her party in the European Parliament.

Does the CSU not want Germans to know about the EU subsidies farmers get?

Does the CSU not want Germans to know about the EU subsidies farmers get?

Each year, the Queen of England receives several hundred thousand euros, as do her son Charles, the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Plymouth. Despite their frequent criticism of Brussels, the British nobility aren't above taking a share of the European Union's agricultural grant money.

The same holds true for the rich and the noble on the other side of the English Channel. Prince Albert II of Monaco has taken advantage of these EU benefits, as has Gloria, Princess of Thurn und Taxis. Anyone who owns large tracts of land -- whether they are forests, meadows or fields -- can also receive huge sums from Brussels. Around €50 billion ($66 billion) are made available each year to subsidize nearly anything that fits into the category of "agriculture."

Taxpayers are repeatedly told that this system is designed to help small farmers who otherwise wouldn't stand a chance against low-price competitors on the global market. That is how politicians and agricultural lobbyists justify these generous donations, but their motivations have always been suspect.

One reason to be suspicious can be found in the fact that around 80 percent of German farmers -- the majority of whom are small farmers -- share only a quarter of this agricultural budget. In 2005, that averaged out to about €8,000 per farm. Meanwhile, 40 percent of all the premiums go to large-scale farmers and former agricultural production cooperatives, which make up only about 2 percent of the farmer population. On average, they receive €200,000 each.

The Shell Game

But even that looks like small peanuts next to the money pouring into the agricultural industry. Take, for example, companies like Germany's Südzucker AG, its British competitor Tate and Lyle, German energy providers Rheinbraun or RWE, the Dutch multinational Unilever or Switzerland's Nestlé. These companies receive almost half of all EU agricultural subsidies, all because they turn rapeseed into diesel or wine into fuel, add milk to animal feed or ice cream, or make butter to bake pastries or feed airline passengers.

Exactly who receives how much and why is currently known for only a handful of cases. But, over the past several years, politicians from a range of political parties and organizations, such as Oxfam, as well as EU functionaries, such as Siim Kallas, the EU's anti-fraud commissioner, have started to push to have the recipients of agricultural grants in all EU countries made public. "Keeping the assignment of EU funds secret only encourages speculation," Kallas says.

Last year, after a great deal of back and forth, politicians in Brussels came to an agreement on this issue. Each country is now obligated to report its recipients of so-called "direct payments" by April 30 at the latest. So far, 18 of the 27 EU member states have done so, and most of the others have signaled their intention to comply by the deadline.

But it would seem that only German citizens aren't supposed to know too much -- or too exactly -- about who's pocketing their tax money. Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner has called for a sudden "temporary suspension" of the obligation and recommended that Germany's 16 federal states, which administer the transfer of agricultural funds, not release any details on subsidy recipients for the time being. Aigner, a member of Bavaria's conservative Christian Socialist Union (CSU) party, has justified the move by pointing out that several German courts have expressed concerns over whether disclosing such information would be compatible with the "fundamental right to data protection."

EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel reacted with astonishment -- and some rather embarrassing legal advice for Aigner. Neither the commission nor an EU member state can simply suspend a law, Boel replied. Instead, Germany would have to file a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice.


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