The European Union spends $65 billion a year subsidizing agriculture. But
a chunk of that money emboldens strongmen, enriches politicians and
finances corrupt dealing.
"Every year, the 28-country bloc pays out $65 billion in farm subsidies
intended to support farmers around the Continent and keep rural
communities alive. But across Hungary and much of Central and Eastern
Europe, the bulk goes to a connected and powerful few. The prime
minister of the Czech Republic collected tens of millions of dollars in
subsidies just last year. Subsidies have underwritten Mafia-style land
grabs in Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Europe’s farm program, a system that was instrumental in forming the
European Union, is now being exploited by the same antidemocratic forces
that threaten the bloc from within. This is because governments in
Central and Eastern Europe, several led by populists, have wide latitude
in how the subsidies, funded by taxpayers across Europe, are distributed
— even as the entire system is shrouded in secrecy.
A New York Times investigation, conducted in nine countries for much of
2019, uncovered a subsidy system that is deliberately opaque, grossly
undermines the European Union’s environmental goals and is warped by
corruption and self-dealing.
Europe’s machinery in Brussels enables this rough-hewed corruption
because confronting it would mean changing a program that helps hold a
precarious union together. European leaders disagree about many things,
but they all count on generous subsidies and wide discretion in spending
them. Bucking that system to rein in abuses in newer member states would
disrupt political and economic fortunes across the Continent.
This is why, with the farm bill up for renewal this year, the focus in
Brussels isn’t on rooting out corruption or tightening controls.
Instead, lawmakers are moving to give national leaders more authority on
how they spend money — over the objections of internal auditors.
The program is the biggest item in the European Union’s central budget,
accounting for 40 percent of expenditures. It’s one of the largest
subsidy programs in the world.
Yet some lawmakers in Brussels who write and vote on farm policy admit
they often have no idea where the money goes."
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