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Friday, December 03, 2010

Message to the Commission: Denial won't reduce waste

You remember the non-existing Hungarian dog fitness centre which received €400,000 in EU subsidies? We highlighted the project at the top of our list of 50 examples of EU waste.

Well, from the Hungarian press we now learn that the Hungarian Development Agency - the national body responsible for the distribution of the EU's regional development funds - has asked the company Gyrotech Ltd (which, bizarrely enough is an IT company) to pay back the money it received in 2007 for the project to the European Regional Development Fund. The original grant was aimed at "improving the lifestyle and living standard of dogs."

Hungarian economic magazine HVG credits Open Europe for bringing the case to the attention of the international press.

If the money will in fact be paid back, this is good news and shows that it’s possible to fight EU waste. As a result of efforts to shed some light on these funds (by Open Europe and others), EU waste was detected and the money which was misused is now being reclaimed. Everyone happy?

Not the European Commission, it appears, which didn't quite seem to appreciate Open Europe's efforts to ensure that the EU budget constitutes good value for taxpayers' money and contributes to growth and jobs in Europe.

Note the differing responses:

The Hungarian National Development Agency – which admittedly should have been more prudent when giving grants to the project in the first place - investigated what went wrong and claimed back the money.

The European Commission:

“We don’t consider this to be credible research”. Our list, with the dog fitness centre at the top, was apparently “based on a loose collection of unverified secondary sources”, according to the Commission.

And, “It is regrettable that Open Europe did not even approach the commission to verify any of their so-called facts…it is very easy to pull out a few of the less orthodox projects from thousands funded by the EU and present them in a onedimensional manner for ridicule.”

The Commission does indeed look pretty ridiculous when it makes statements like this, and it turns out that the number one item on the list, the dog fitness centre in question, was a clear case of undisputable EU waste and that the project is now forced to refund the cash.

It’s not that hard to verify actually. The first-hand source (the Hungarian Regional Development Agency), detailing the grant, is right there in the footnotes of our report – all you have to do is to click on the link and voila!

The same goes for almost all the other projects we’ve highlighted, apart from a handful, such as the case of the two fishermen who received a €500,000 grant from the EU and the Swedish government to scrap their boat under a scheme to reduce over-fishing. It then used the grant to buy a new boat, under a separate set of rules, and carried on with their fishing business. In this case, the fishermen themselves were widely documented to have admitted that this was exactly what had happened.

Instead of going on its counterproductive rant, the Commission should thank anyone who tries to identify waste and who proposes reforms to stamp it out.

We’re not holding our breathes though.

Meanwhile, the Financial Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalists have made European taxpayers and transparency campaigners a great service this weak by shedding some additional, and much needed light, on the EU's structural funds. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for example.

Some of the findings have included:
  • Only 10% of the earmarked funds for 2007-2013 have actually been paid out to date, due to difficulties in many member states to find money for co-financing projects at a time of austerity in Europe (showing how poorly equipped the structural funds are to respond to changing economic circumstances in Europe, in turn undermining their ability to foster "convergence")
  • €12mn of EU funds have been spent on a port which lays idle in Gran Canaria.
  • More than €3mn of public funds – including an estimated €1.5m from EU structural funds – have been allocated to tobacco companies in Europe. The funds have gone to help equip cigarette factories and to fund training projects. Under the Framework Convention this is in breach of WHO guidelines on tobacco control. Paradoxically, the EU also spends more than €16mn a year on antismoking campaigns.
  • Some big beneficiaries of the structural funds include McDonald's, which received funds to train staff in an affluent region of Sweden, in addition to IBM, Coca-Cola, and Japan Tobacco International. This is despite the fact that the funds are specifically meant to help small and medium sized companies, particularly in poorer regions.
  • Structural funds have been allocated to companies relocating factories from west to east Europe, despite this contravening EU rules.
The Commission has resorted to its trade mark 'nothing-to-see-here' and 'it’s-all-only-a-misunderstanding' response. Indeed, denial remains the most predictable of the Commission's responses.

To be fair, the Commission has at least one sensible proposal for improving the targetting of the structural funds - linking more of the funds to actual performance and achieved targets (as outlined by Commissioner Hahn).

More stuff like this and fewer defensive rants, would serve to improve both the effectiveness of the funds as well as the image of the Commission itself.

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