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Fields of Gold: Lifting the Veil on Europe's Farm Subsidies

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Fields of Gold: Lifting the Veil on Europe's Farm Subsidies Europeans at the supermarket. On average we spend a sixth of our income on food, drinks and tobacco, a good deal of which comes from Europe’s four million farms. But as well as what we spend at the shops, through our taxes we pay for a system of farm subsidies worth 55 billion euro a year. That’s more than €100 a year for every man, woman and child. But where does this money go? For decades this was a closely guarded secret. I’m Jack Thurston and this is the story of how a group of journalists and activists fought governments and powerful farm lobbies to find out the truth about who gets what from the common agricultural policy. For me, it all began almost ten years ago when I was working as a political adviser to the agriculture minister in this building here. One afternoon I was looking over the minister’s shoulder at a list of the top twenty recipients of farm subsidies in Britain. I was surprised and I was shocked. At that time Britain had no law on freedom of information, so it was easy for civil servants to refuse my request to release the data. Five years later, after The UK’s new Freedom of Information Act came into force, I finally obtained the lists of who gets the money here in the UK. And it was big news. A short bike ride from Westminster and I’m here in Eaton Square the jewel in the crown of a property empire that makes the Duke of Westminster Britain’s wealthiest citizen with a net worth of an estimated £7 billion As well as some of the best bits of London’s real estate the Duke also owns a farm for which he claims more than half a million pounds a year in farm subsidies. With 1,300 dairy cows and thousands of acres of cereals, you wouldn’t think the Duke of Westminster was the kind of farmer who needed a taxpayer handout But that’s exactly how the common agricultural policy works. The bigger you are, the more land you have, the more money you get. Time for a bit of history. Europe’s farm subsidies have deep roots that go back to the very beginnings of the European Union. During the Second World War Europe had suffered acute food shortages and in the years of post war reconstruction every government was keen to maximise the production of food. Back in those days many more people lived and worked on the land than they do now and the founding fathers of the EU came up with a single policy to meet the twin aims of boosting food production and ensuring a decent living for the many millions of people who worked on the land. Their idea was to guarantee high prices for European farmers and at the same time to use import taxes to protect European farmers from competition from overseas from farmers in the United States, Australia and the developing world. The policy was so successful at increasing production that by the 1980s the problem was not too little food but far too much. The infamous mountains of beef and butter the wine lakes and the warehouses full of unwanted grains. Modern agriculture had become so efficient and so mechanised that one man could do the work that used to be done by fifty. The policy had completely failed in its aim of stemming migration from rural areas into the towns and cities. And more than that, the costs to taxpayers were spiralling out of control. And inevitably the political stakes were high. Farmers feared that their generous subsidies would be removed and were only too happy to make their voices heard. By and large, farmers command a lot of public sympathy particularly those small and family farms who have a hard time competing with their bigger neighbours. But would the public feel the same if they knew the lion’s share of the subsidies was going to the biggest, most profitable farms? While I was uncovering the enormous scale of farm subsidies to rich landowners in the UK Nils Mulvad, a Danish journalist, was doing exactly the same in his country. So they from the very beginning said no. And then we were taking it into different professional steps of going up to the higher level and taking it to the ombudsman and it was very difficult because the ombudsman three times said no to look into the case and the reason for that was that the authority told us in response that this data was not in their computer files so they could not give it to us and we said that it couldn’t be true that with so many payments it must be on the computer system and we requested to get that file and said we would continue to the end. They invited us to a meeting and said we could have the data. We were pretty shocked! Suddenly they turned around and it wasn’t necessary to take it to the ombudsman. After our successes in Denmark and the UK Nils and I realised it was time to take our work to a European level. So in May 2005 we went to Brussels, the heart of the EU where we brought together a handful of people who shared our interest in uncovering the truth about farm subsidies. In the four years since then has grown a network of journalists, researchers, activists and computer programmers all working together to make the EU budget more transparent. The network is very loose and from a journalistic view it’s a new thing. Normally you don’t want to share your research with NGOs or people with a political background. But we decided that we can work together on getting the data, and everybody can use them for their own purposes. So we are not binding us to any conclusion or any political view We are keeping up the independence. Still it was a bit new I was a bit scared about how the rest of the people in the global network would look at us working together with non-journalists getting the data but on the other hand it is one of the new ways of lifting such a big research project so I thought we should try it. What got me interested was really the amount of money that’s in it, This is taxpayers’ money. At the time I started to work with it it was the largest single lump of the EU budget. The data on the recipients of the farm subsidies have been described by some as a ‘poisonous list’, a ‘dangerous list’, because there was obviously no interest in disclosing this data We have had decades of public money being sent to these policies, and to the farmers and the businesses who implemented these policies without real public scrutiny. As well as big companies and wealthy landowners our investigations have revealed politicians getting farm subsidies. One of the most memorable cases was that of the Dutch farms minister, Cees Veerman. Our investigations revealed that he owned several farms in France and was claiming hundreds of thousands of euro in subsidies all of this kept secret from the Dutch people. As minister for agriculture, he was making decisions on the future of farm subsidies, decisions that would have a direct bearing on his own financial interests. On the front cover of the International Herald Tribune today, on the second day of our meet-up, is a story about farm subsidies which we’ve helped to do in a small way I suppose, and they’ve got pretty good coverage, the whole of page four as well as this big front page story about it, so I’m going to go in and try to catch up with the journalists who wrote it to find out the inside story. It’s basically a story about multi-nationals that are moving into Eastern Europe with weak regulations and soaking up farm subsidies These companies are Fortune 500 firms that make billions of euro a year and they’re reaping the subsidies while small farmers are going out of business. One of the difficult things we’ve found particularly on the farm subsidies was the lack of transparency, it was very difficult. Even now, although there’s much more data online, It’s almost impossible to find out how much some companies are getting from the EU taxpayer. There’s a big debate in Europe about the common agricultural policy and it’s not a very well informed debate because most people, if they’re favourable to the common agricultural policy, assume this money is going to support the rural environment and small farmers. In fact, the big payments are going to the big players, and they’re going in some cases to American companies who are investing in Romania, to introduce factory-farming methods. They’re doing nothing illegal, it’s completely proper, it’s in tune with the laws, but I don’t think it’s what most people expect from the common agricultural policy. I think taxpayers need to make informed choices to know what their money is being spent on. We’re very lucky because we work for a newspaper that allows us the time and resources to do this work, but for most journalists it’s pretty inconceivable that they’d be able to spend several months on a story, visit the countries two or three times and that’s why it’s extremely important to have as much information available as possible in an easily accessible a form as possible. To make the enormous amount of raw data we’d obtained more easily accessible, and all in one place, we decided to build a website that would allow anyone, anywhere, access to the information at the click of a mouse. The first farmsubsidy.org website was launched at the end of 2005 and by 2009, there was so much new data that it needed a complete overhaul. The biggest challenge in making a website like this work for users is trying to make the data easily searchable, really quickly so that people don’t have to hang around waiting for the data to load. There’s so much data that if you have to wait a minute or two to try and get your search results then it’s even harder to try and find what you’re looking for. The things I like about this project are I like the background philosophy of it, I like the idea of making data more open and transparent across Europe, but from a technical perspective it’s a really nice challenge having to take this much data and make it so fast and so accessible. We’ve done a couple of other things with the site as well, allowing people to group the data in particular ways, so you can make your own list of data which helps people use the data really nicely they’re nice challenges to try and solve. And all the website is open source so I hope other people will benefit from the techniques I’ve used. I think it’s what Manuel Castells said a few years ago, he said ‘Of course the internet is a worry because it enhances governments’ capacity to monitor citizens, but the internet is a great opportunity because it allows citizens capacity to monitor governments’. When there is given the impression about a policy that this policy is in order to protect our small farmers so that they don’t have to leave the countryside and so on, and then we see that large amounts of money are sent to wealthy landowners or old nobility families who have had large lands for generations, then all of a sudden the political argument and the reality do not correspond anymore and that is the place where I, as a journalist, have to come in and do a story for my readers, for the taxpayers whose money this is. There are two things I particularly like about farmsubsidy.org. One is that it shows how the same data can become dramatically more meaningful if aggregated and made visual and made more meaningful by third parties. And the second thing is that it does it with European money and I think there is a dramatic need to do something interesting with European policy. This can only help European policies and European institutions, Europe-building Debate is necessary to have more consensus, to have citizens taking conscience and taking interest in what is going on at the European level. At the same time as we were pushing for transparency using national Freedom of Information laws, Siim Kallas, the Vice President of the European Commission was driving forward his own transparency initiative that would require the publication of recipients of not just farm subsidies, but all European Union funds. For me, transparency is very important for democracy. There is no democracy without transparency and I discovered that we have to fight for transparency here, in the Brussels bubble, and EU policy is very important. Database research is very much about crunching numbers and using statistics and journalists normally come into journalism because they are word people, they don’t like maths and software and so on, so it’s really a heavy task when you train journalists to get them to use these kinds of methods as one of the tools to make research. We live in the computerised world and we need computer specialists and it is very helpful if computer specialists and investigative journalists work together. This is what we need. All kinds of stories are cross border now, climate change, pollution, crime, security. Politics is also more and more European so there will be more and more data and stories on a cross border level and there will be a lot on a European level that will need to be done on a cross border scale I think. If we as journalists want to be true watchdogs if we want to be this counterweight to the power which is concentrated in the European institutions, we have to think European as journalists as well. We have to follow this story across borders rather than thinking in our own little country and our own little national target group. The farmsubsidy project opens the door for a broader field of transparency. Suddenly the institutions come under pressure to make public how much they spend for their salaries. The MEPs, how much money do they make? And this was really something which opened the door for transparency. I can see all of a sudden people are talking about it. Ordinary people who don’t know that I’ve been involved in the disclosure of this, they start talking about the farm subsidies, the policy of the EU, about the spending, this is what we want. We want the transparency in order to make the people, the voters, the basis of democracy to give them the tool to think about what they want and to make a qualified vote the next time they vote. Our work has revealed the truth about who gets what in EU farm subsidies. But has it really changed anything? According to Roger Waite, a journalist specialising in EU farm policy, it has. It’s showing to taxpayers where the money is going and raising this question of why is it going? Why do we have farmers in one member state that get so much in direct payments, and farmers in another state who maybe have the same size of land who get a fraction of the same quantity in particular we have that with the new member states and I think that by having the transparency it is driving this political move to make the distribution of aid much more fair and much more justifiable and my hope is that through this action, through the new transparency aided by farmsubsidy.org we’re going to see a change in attitude in a lot of member states about this culture and this idea that if it is public money it’s only fair that you show the public how how the money is being spent. When I first started thinking about how important it was to be open and honest with the British public about farm subsidies I had no idea that it would lead to a pan European movement for budget transparency. But that’s exactly what’s happened. And now having shone the light on farm policy we’re beginning to open up budgets that relate to the subsidies the European Union provides to fishing vessels, to regional aid, and to overseas aid and development assistance. ‘Follow the money’ is a well known adage among investigative journalists, but now, thanks to the web, anyone who’s interested can find out how their money gets spent and this can only be a good thing because the more the public knows about what’s going on, the greater the pressure on politicians to do the right thing. to find out who gets what from the common agricultural policy visit farmsubsidy.org and who gets what from the common fisheries policy at fishsubsidy.org if you want to get involved in the project, we want to hear from you team@farmsubsidy.org written and presented by Jack Thurston A film by Kate Moyse Original music by Birger Clausen FarmSubsidy.org is a project of EU Transparency It is made possible thanks to the generous support of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Video Details

Duration: 20 minutes and 16 seconds
Year: 2009
Country: United Kingdom
Language: English
Producer: Jack Thurston
Director: Kate Moyse
Views: 839
Posted by: farmsubsidy on Oct 17, 2009

The European Union spends €55 billion a year on farm subsidies. Until recently the question of where the money goes was a closely-guarded secret. But thanks to a campaign by journalists, researchers and computer programmers, European taxpayers now have the right to know how their tax money is spent. This short film tells the story of farmsubsidy.org.

TRANSLATORS: If you'd like to help translate this film into an EU language, we may be able to pay you. Our top priority languages where we still need translators are French, Polish, Greek, Swedish and Czech.

Please get in touch team --at-- farmsubsidy.org

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