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Veil of secrecy coming off Europe’s farm subsidies

Brussels — Some of Europe’s most closely guarded secrets must be revealed by Thursday when a deadline passes for nations to make public the beneficiaries of the EU’s generous farm subsidies.

Those harvesting Europe’s subsidies — a system that eats up almost 40 percent of the EU’s entire budget — among the 27 member nations must be listed publicly on Internet sites along with the exact amounts they earn.

And the sums are anything but paltry: EU aid to farmers in 2007 was around 55 billion euros (72 billion dollars) for the year, with those in France being the leading beneficiaries.

The obligation to make the payments transparent dates from bitterly negotiated reforms in 2006 in the Common Agricultural Policy, which was originally conceived to boost Europe’s farm output in the wake of World War II.

Already in December 2008, EU member states had to list the veil of secrecy on a small part of the overall subsidy package when they had to reveal recipients of so-called rural development aid.

But on Thursday, it will be the turn to shine the light on the bulk of the handouts when the 27 EU governments have to publish the names of those who receive direct farm subsidies.

Germany has been dragging its feet, saying last week that it would not reveal recipients because some of its courts had ruled in cases brought by farmers that such disclosure represents a violation of their privacy.

"Transparency yes, but not if it is going to violate the rights of our citizens," a spokesman for the German agriculture ministry said.

By refusing to reveal farm handout recipients, Germany is running the threat of being dragged by the European Commission before the European Court of Justice, which could lead to hefty fines.

"This is taxpayers’ money, so it is very important that people know where it is being spent," EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said.

"Transparency should also improve the management of these funds, by reinforcing public control of how the money is used."

Critics of the Common Agricultural Policy say the subsidies contribute to higher food prices for European consumers, and undermines the ability of farmers in the developing world to break in the EU market.

The Britain-based Farmsubsidy association, which has lobbied for years to get the shroud of secrecy on farm handouts to be lifted, blasted the German refusal as a "disgrace."

"The handful of politicians and judges in Germany who are opposing transparency are acting as the puppets of big agri-business and wealthy landowners, whose only interest is to keep the German people in the dark about the reality of farm subsidies," said Farmsubsidy campaigner Jack Thurston.

Data released so far in Germany has already caused some waves, with horse-riding and ski clubs as well as sports car tycoon Wolfgang Porsche emerging as recipients.

In Britain, where some data has been made public in recent years, figures have shown that the royal family has accepted EU farm subsidies — even though London is a fierce critic of the system.

Queen Elizabeth II, who has big farmland holdings, received 769,000 pounds (851,000 euros, 1.12 million dollars) while her son Prince Charles got 300,000 pounds.

Those numbers pale, however, against those of British sugar conglomerate Tate and Lyle, which according to Farmsubsidy received well over 350 million pounds from 2002-2003 through 2004-2005.

Although France is the biggest single national recipient of farm funds taking in about 18 percent of the total and the staunchest defender of the system, Paris says that it is going to publish individual beneficiaries.

So far, Farmsubsidy says only seven of the 27 EU countries have provided most of the data.