New Danish farms minister in subsidy storm

Yesterday’s reshuffle of the Danish government included the appointment of a new minister for agriculture: Henrik Høegh. Less than a day into his new job, he is becoming embroiled in a political row over a perceived conflict of interest. The reason? Mr Høegh is a farmer who receives more than sixty thousand euro a year in EU farm subsidies.

Data on farm subsidies shows that since 2000, Mr Høegh has benefited from the CAP to the tune of 604,787 euros over the nine years from 2000 to 2008. Farm subsidies appear to be something of a Høegh family business: it seems his son and daughter are also significant recipients. Mr Høegh is now responsible for signing his own subsidy cheques, but also, as a member of the EU’s Council of Agriculture Ministers, deciding on the future of the CAP.

Henrik Høegh - conflict of interest?

Høegh’s appointment to such a high profile and sensitive post came as something of a surprise since he’s only been a member of parliament for less than three years, before which time he was a Vice President of Danish Agriculture, the farmers union in Denmark, just the most recent position in a career spent in agricultural and farmer associations (read his CV in English here – PDF).

Of course we’ve been here before. Former Danish farms minister and EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel is married to a farmer, with a major business interest at stake in the future of the EU’s farm subsidies and tariff policies. Former Dutch farms minister Cees Veerman was nearly forced to resign when it was revealed that in addition to his farms in the Netherlands, he owned four farms in France, which he had failed to mention in his ministerial declaration of interests, and for which he received nearly two hundred thousand euros in subsidy a year. And the European Parliament’s agriculture committee has long been stuffed with farmers and farmer representatives. It just shows the extent to which the 55 billion euro a year common agricultural policy has been captured by those with a personal financial interest.

This latest row has made it onto Danish national television this evening with journalists, political commentators and opposition politicians questioning whether he can stay in post. With the long-term future of the CAP currently under debate, can the Danish people be confident that Mr Høegh will be pursuing the public interest rather than his own private profits?

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4 Responses to “New Danish farms minister in subsidy storm”

  1. mr ashenden →
    March 1, 2010 at 14:45 #

    I guess it is rather typical that a large proportion of the people, who know about agriculture (I mean more than a citizen who thinks food comes from the supermarket), quite regularily happen to be involved in the field as a farmer themselves.

    Would we be happy having farm ministers who know nothing about the special nature [lets not start a debate on this issue right now, okay ;) ] of agriculture? I guess not.

    To be honest, as a citizen of a EU country, I’d rather accept some danger of a conflict of interest, than having people with no experience in agriculture working as minister (and we do have ministers who are not very knowledgeable about their field of work ;)

    Plus, let’s not forget that Denmark is not your average protectionist regarding the future of CAP ;)

  2. Jack Thurston →
    March 1, 2010 at 16:15 #

    @ Mr Ashenden:
    Perhaps we have rather different views on what is the role of a minister. In my view (and perhaps this is informed by the British system of parliamentary democracy), ministers are not required to come to the job as experts in their field. Rather, they should be able to master the subject quickly, ask the right questions of the experts in the Ministry (civil servants), listen to the various interests from society, set the overall policy direction, make decisions and be accountable for those decisions to parliament and the public. The minister is the representative of the public at large, not the servant or representative of one of the sectoral client groups with a particular
    interest in the work of the ministry.

    I think we are talking here about the difference between a “Ministry of Agriculture” and a “Ministry for Agriculture”.

    In my experience of government, it is generally a mistake to put experts in charge of the ministries relevant to their expertise, e.g. having a doctor running the Department of Health, a teacher running the Department of Education, a film director running the Department of Culture, a train driver running the Department of Transport. Such people usually come with too many preconceptions and a too narrowly defined outlook. If this problem is compounded by the minister having a direct financial interest in the decisions he or she is making, we risk to be in an even worse position.

    Of course you’re right about Denmark not being a traditional protectionist country, but I should add that the Danish government is currently considering exempting all farms from all taxes, a policy which would clearly benefit Mr Høegh.

  3. mr ashenden →
    March 2, 2010 at 07:30 #

    I sort of agree with Your point about what a minister should do and what he should be made of. I guess it’s rather often the case that the minister is usually a loyal party servant (that’s why he got the appointment) whilst really being a weak leader and therefore has no real power and guidance over the ministrys civil servants. If the minister is weak (and a lot of them are), it’s the civil servants who run the show. Which isn’t neccessarily a bad thing, but it’s usually not a good thing. The classic “Yes, (Prime) Minister!” comes to mind ;)

    To be honest, as far as I have seen there are no ministrys “of” sth. The system dictates that each and every ministry is “for” sth. Which I guess is somewhat inevitable in a democracy.

    I didn’t know about the plans of the Danish government considering the abolishing of taxes for farms, so if You could pass out some links or sth for further reading, I would be grateful. As far as I understand, this move might constitute as illegal state aid, although I do aunderstand that taxes is a whole different ballgame in the EU level.

  4. Nils Mulvad
    March 6, 2010 at 05:27 #

    It turns out that the proposal for abolishing the taxes for farmland will hurt the local municipality, Lolland, in Denmark most. And that’s exactly where the new minister of Agriculture Henrik Høegh runs his farm. So this will save a lot of money for all landowners and it will make it difficult for the municipalities later to use this way of getting income.
    Mr. Høegh promises to compensate the local municipalities with state aid, but let’s see how this is distributed now and in the coming years. It’s very difficult to make an aid, which actually makes a fair compensation on something which is decided on a local basis.
    At Aabenhedstinget we have published the list of how much money each of the 98 Danish municipality will loose. Look here:
    http://www.aabenhedstinget.dk/?p=765
    It has been mentioned at the website for The Danish Broadcast Corporation here:
    http://www.dr.dk/Regioner/Sjaelland/Nyheder/Lolland/2010/03/04/165628.htm
    And it is in a blog here:
    http://www.180grader.dk/Politik/foedevareministerens-hjemkommune-scorer-mest-saerstoette-til-landbrug
    All this is in Danish – but just to add some links to the discussion.