MEPs try to tackle Orbán and Babiš over EU agricultural funds – POLITICO


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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš are in the sights of the European Parliament as lawmakers push to use a high-tech data tool to eliminate the long-standing misallocation of agricultural funds from the European Parliament. ‘EU.

Lack of transparency and corruption in EU agricultural spending, the biggest strand of the Union’s regular budget, raised as fundamental issues as the end of next week’s budget negotiations nears 270 billion euros from the new five-year budget. Common agricultural policy (CAP).

Parliament wants to expand the use of a data mining tool called ARACHNE to more closely monitor the destination of CAP funds. But parliamentarians face stiff opposition in talks next week. the 27 EU countries, represented on the Council of the European Union, oppose the tool being mandatory in the next CAP, preferring a voluntary approach, where the tool is only available for countries s ‘they want to use it.

For Ulrike Müller, one of the three main CAP negotiators in Parliament, this is not enough. “Parliament wants to do something against Babiš and Orbán,” she told POLITICO in an interview.

Projects in Hungary and the Czech Republic, as well as some in Slovakia and Italy, have raised serious concerns about the allocation of agricultural funds. Hungary featured prominently in a 2019 New York Times expose on EU agricultural subsidies enriching politically connected hubs. A European Commission investigation into Czech Prime Minister Babiš has revealed that he is still pulling the strings of his agricultural empire Agrofert, a large beneficiary of EU agricultural funds. Hungary claims reports of abusive spending are biased and politically motivated, while Babiš repeatedly insists that he has done nothing wrong.

The European Commission’s ARACHNE system is already in use for EU grant programs in regional policy – on a voluntary basis. Müller’s proposal would see it included in the CAP for direct payments.

An insider from the European Parliament said Babiš and Orbán “would not be delighted” if the use of the tool was made compulsory by Brussels, in line with Parliament’s wishes, but said the main reason the countries were oppose it is because of concerns. the tool is simply not yet sufficiently developed.

Müller, the main rapporteur of the CAP dossier on financing and monitoring, is also concerned about the administrative burden this could entail for national authorities. “We don’t want to control every small farmer with the system, which would create a heavy administrative burden,” she said. It’s easier to use technology to track cohesion funds as they tend to be smaller and larger payments.

EU countries have already indicated that they would only be open to using such a system if it is the beneficiaries’ responsibility to provide them with the data, and this is not mandatory.

The proposal is also bogged down in technical difficulties. “The Commission is not ready to adopt this for all CAP payments now,” Müller said.

However, a spokesperson for the European Commission replied that the institution was pushing for the tool to be mandatory for governments to deploy in the next CAP. “The Commission encourages Member States to use ARACHNE as it is useful for checking conflicts of interest, fraud and irregularities, but it takes time for all Member States to fully exploit the potential of this tool, ”said the spokesperson.

European People’s Party MEP Norbert Lins, Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said: “This system could indeed help to better control corruption. “He said that the position of Parliament as a whole was also to make this mandatory, but that he could also understand the doubts about its relevance in the CAP.

According to the spokesperson for the European Commission, the European executive “will ensure its obligation” to put in place the tool so that all EU governments use it in the new CAP from 2023. Brussels also insists that the so-called misuse error rate “remains at a very low level.”

Despite doubts about ARACHNE, the next agricultural policy seems likely to take a small step towards a more transparent system. Negotiators agreed to increase transparency on recipients of agricultural subsidies by requiring recipients to disclose which broader legal entities they belong to. This could in theory reveal whether a corrupt politician secretly controls part of the EU’s farmland, but there is still a step forward in full transparency on the original owner of each hectare of subsidized land. Parliament is likely to try to ensure full transparency on CAP beneficiaries during negotiations next week, the European Parliament insider said.

The spokesperson confirmed that the European Commission will start collecting and publishing the information that governments collect on legal entities receiving CAP payments.

Müller said: “We are really having a huge success, because the information on the beneficiary groups will be published.” However, the Commission does not plan to publish the information collected by the ARACHNE tool, but could propose to Parliament a report in 2025 on its operation.

Gabriela Galindo contributed reporting.

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