Cross compliance: is the Court of Auditors being gagged?

As Wyn Grant has observed, the Court of Auditors annual report on the 2007 EU budget published on Monday identified a clutch of weaknesses associated with the controls on spending on EU farm policies. The Court observes that “Some 20 percent of payments audited at final beneficiary level and revealed incorrect payments, a limited number of which had a high financial impact.” It concludes that farm subsidies remained “affected by a material level of error of legality and/or regularity”.

Strangely absent from the Court’s report was an evaluation of cross compliance – the environmental and animal health and welfare conditions that are required of all recipients of CAP direct payments: public expenditure which totals some 36 billion euros a year (28 billion euros of which is spent under the Single Payment Scheme). Could this be because the Court has just adopted a separate special report on this very subject? But that the report is being held back until the health check is concluded?

On 17 October 2008, a senior official from the Court told a rural development conference held in Limassol, Cyprus that the Court its report on cross compliance and that publication was imminent. The official hinted that the report took a fairly dim view of cross compliance as a way of delivering value for money. Such a conclusion would be very embarrassing for the Commission. Commissioner Fischer Boel is fond saying that cross compliance embodies the principle of ‘public money for public goods’. The evidence is generally to the contrary. As the Institute for European Environmental Policy found, most cross compliance requirements are actually no higher than what is required by existing EU and national laws, so cross compliance does not require anything more than is already required by law. Moreover, the inspection regime is distinctly light touch and it is exceptionally rare for farmers to actually have much of their payments reduced for failing to meet the requirements.

An adverse opinion from the Court will be doubly difficult for the Commission at this moment, just as it seeks to secure a final deal on the health check: the package of mini reforms to the CAP that includes, you’ve guessed it, a ‘simplification’ of cross compliance. Simplification is of course the traditional euphemism for reducing still further the requirements on farmers and scaling back the inspection regime that tries to check that the requirements are being met.

The health check is being debated in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday next week. I am sure there are MEPs who would value the contribution of the Court’s report to their considerations of cross compliance and the health check more general.

The Court adopted its report on cross compliance on 4 November. Why has it not been published? Is it far fetched to imagine that someone in the Commission is applying pressure on the Court to sit on a controversial report until the health check is done and dusted?

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