E.U. Farm Chief Pledges to Tackle Corruption in Subsidy Program

The vow follows a fresh York Times investigation showing how one of the world’s major subsidy programs enriches far-right leaders, bankrolls oligarchs and underwrites Mafia tactics.

BRUSSELS – The European Union’s new top agricultural formal promised on Thursday to introduce anticorruption measures in response to a New York Times inspection that revealed the way the bloc’s huge farm subsidy program underwrites a system of political patronage and land grabbing.

The $65-billion-a-year fund is one of the world’s greatest subsidy schemes. The amount of money, which many farmers regard as a birthright and which dates to the founding of europe, has helped transform the continent into a dominant agricultural producer.

However the Times investigation exhibited how populist far-right politicians have used the program to enrich themselves and their political allies at the expense of small farmers. In addition, it demonstrated how the program has contributed to devastating environmental problems – included in this growing greenhouse gas emissions, polluted rivers and sharp reductions in bird populations.

The bloc’s new agricultural commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, told members of the European Parliament on Thursday that he’d work to tighten controls. “I’d like to introduce a list of preventive anticorruption measures,” he said.

He was responding to a question about the Times inspection from Francisco Guerreiro, a European lawmaker from Portugal.

Mr. Wojciechowski’s response, if short on details, signaled that top officials in Brussels are thinking about direct steps to combat corruption in the subsidy program. European officials possessed recently said that it was up to national leaders – including those people who have manipulated and benefited from the subsidies – to institute reforms or crack down on abuses.

THE DAYS tracked at least $49 million in subsidies to companies handled by Prime Minister Andrej Babis of the Czech Republic, for example. And reporters mapped government farmland sales in Hungary that made the relatives and buddies of the prime minister, Viktor Orban, qualified to receive millions of dollars in subsidies.

Despite such problems, any significant changes proposed by Mr. Wojciechowski are likely to be hotly contested. A number of the European lawmakers who write the subsidy insurance policy also benefit in my opinion from this program, a predicament that is allowed by Europe’s weak and murky conflict-of-interest guidelines.

Cracking down may also be difficult because much of the abuse noted by THE DAYS can be traced to the subsidy formula itself. The European Union pays farmers centered how much land they control, something that encourages farmers to acquire more and more property.

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In Hungary, leaders have doled out huge swaths of government-owned farmland, making the new owners qualified to receive subsidies. In Bulgaria, a handful of grain barons receive almost all of the subsidies. Slovakian farmers have reported being beaten and extorted for farmland. These kinds of abuses are usually kept to the countrywide governments to law enforcement.

Just this month, Italian officials arrested 94 people suspected to be involved with a Mafia design to make millions from European farm subsidies.

Mr. Wojciechowski reiterated his office’s longstanding support for a subsidy cap, a measure designed to decrease the amount of subsidies that go to the biggest farmers. Presently, about 80 percent of subsidies go directly to the wealthiest 20 percent of recipients. But such a big change would want approval from countrywide leaders, many of whom are organizing against it.

“I believe large farms – at some level this is more of any enterprise when compared to a farm, so funding such holdings should be limited,” Mr. Wojciechowski said. “Whether it happens or not, that’s up to member state governments.”

The subsidies are in a crossroads this season as lawmakers in Brussels debate their renewal.

European leaders never have said the way the farm program fits into their ambitious new environmental agenda, known as the Green Deal. Agriculture is by far the largest item in the European budget, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all spending.