European Union countries are failing in the promise to make the common fisheries policy more transparent, claims a new report from FishSubsidy.org. With the policy undergoing a fundamental review, the report - "Slipping through the net: How EU countries evade new budget transparency rules", by investigative journalist Brigitte Alfter - provides a timely overview of access to information about EU fish subsidies and illustrates how weakness in the legal framework for transparency and bureaucratic obfuscation by member states are making it harder for EU citizens to know how their money is being spent.
In 2005, Europe's administrative, audit and anti-fraud commissioner, Siim Kallas, launched the European Transparency Initiative, a project aimed at improving transparency at the EU level. Member states are required to publish the names of subsidy recipients and their operations, and the amounts of public funding allocated since 1 May 2007. However, as the report shows, access to this information is far from perfect.
First of all the report evaluates whether member states are meeting their legal requirments: several are not. Second, the report examines four measures of accessibility: Is the information easily accessible? Is the information presented in English or in one of the other EU working languages? Is the format user-friendly? And is it possible to download the information per member state and year in csv or spreadsheet format in order to analyse the data?
Errors, misinformation and difficulty accessing information has significant policy implications, says Alfter, as it makes it difficult for citizens, journalists and public-interest groups to assess the information.
"With the introduction of the European Transparency Initiative, the cumbersome process of making access to documents requests relating to EU funds paid under the Common Fisheries Policies should have become unnecessary. Citizens, journalists, political parties and public-interest groups should have direct access to the information – making it easier for citizens and public officials at national and EU-level alike. Unfortunately, this has not happened." Alfter explains.
"The publication of names of beneficiaries represents real progress in budget transparency but this has been accompanied by a reduction in the quality and detail of data and its fragmentation into dozens of often inaccessible sources. With the responsibility for publication of data - including the choice of data format - left to member states, European citizens are cast into a maze of different languages, formats, places and modes of publication."
"The aims of the European Transparency Initiative are laudable but too often the ball has been dropped at the implementation stage. Brigitte Alfter, one of Europe's most accomplished investigative journalists, has found it wildly frustrating to access to the kind of budget data that ought to be the right of every EU citizen. What hope is there for ordinary members of the public to find out how their money has been spent? This report reveals an equal measures of bureaucratic incompetence and obfuscation. It should be a wake up call to the Commission and a strong indictment of member states who do not appear to take budget transparency seriously."
In her report, Alfter recommends the following:
1. There is a public interest in the disclosure of detailed data on fisheries subsidy payments, including the names of beneficiaries but also other data relevant to the operation of the policy. The data should be published in one place according to a clear and consistent template. The European Commision should take the lead in making this happen while member states remain responsible for the accuracy of the data.
2. All information should be published in a user-friendly format, e.g. an html search function and the option to download entire data-sets in a spreadsheet or csv format.
Note to the Editor:
1. Brigitte Alfter is a co-founder of Farmsubsidy.org and the director of the European Fund for Investigative Journalism, which supports quality journalism and cross-border journalistic research through research grants. She has covered European affairs and EU-matters for a number of years, she uses freedom of information legislation as a journalistic tool and conducts training on the subject.
2. The EU's common fisheries policy (CFP) is a system of rules, fishing quotas, enforcement controls and subsidies. Until 2004 a large sum of money was spent on building new fishing vessels and subsidies continue to be paid for the modernisation of vessels and other measures that increase the pressure on dwindling fish stocks.
3. FishSubsidy.org is a project coordinated by EU Transparency, a non-profit organisation in the UK and the Pew Charitable Trusts, a charitable foundation based in the United States. The aim is to obtain detailed data relating to payments and recipients of fisheries subsidies in every EU member state and make this data available in a way that is useful to European citizens. Subsidies paid to owners of fishing vessels and others working in the fishing industry under the European Union's common fisheries policy amount to approximately €1 billion a year. For more information, please visit http://www.fishsubsidy.org/