Slipping through the net

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Sept. 16, 2009.

European Union countries are failing in the promise to make the common fisheries policy more transparent, according to a new report. With the policy undergoing a fundamental review, the report - “Slipping through the net: How EU countries evade new budget transparency rules”, by investigative journalist Brigitte Alfter - provides a timely overview of access to information about EU fish subsidies and illustrates how weakness in the legal framework for transparency and bureaucratic obfuscation by member states are making it harder for EU citizens to know how their money is being spent.

In 2005, Europe’s administrative, audit and anti-fraud commissioner, Siim Kallas, launched the European Transparency Initiative, a project aimed at improving transparency at the EU level. Member states are required to publish the names of subsidy recipients and their operations, and the amounts of public funding allocated since 1 May 2007. However, as the report shows, access to this information is far from perfect.

First, the report evaluates whether member states are meeting their legal requirements: several are not. Second, the report examines four measures of accessibility: Is the information easily accessible? Is the information presented in English or in one of the other EU working languages? Is the format user-friendly? And is it possible to download the information per member state and year in csv or spreadsheet format in order to analyse the data?

Errors, misinformation and difficulty accessing information has significant policy implications, says Alfter, as it makes it difficult for citizens, journalists and public-interest groups to assess the information,

“With the introduction of the European Transparency Initiative, the cumbersome process of making access to documents requests relating to EU funds paid under the Common Fisheries Policies should have become unnecessary. Citizens, journalists, political parties and public-interest groups should have direct access to the information – making it easier for citizens and public officials at national and EU-level alike. Unfortunately, this has not happened.”

“The publication of names of beneficiaries represents real progress in budget transparency but this has been accompanied by a reduction in the quality and detail of data and its fragmentation into dozens of often inaccessible sources. With the responsibility for publication of data - including the choice of data format - left to member states, European citizens are cast into a maze of different languages, formats, places and modes of publication.”

Alfter ranks EU member states on compliance with the law, accessibility and the provision of additional information not required under the law. The rankings show there is a great variation between the best countries like Denmark, Finland, Estonia and Belgium and the worst, such as the UK, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy, Malta and Portugal.

Alfter makes the following recommendations:

There is a public interest in the disclosure of detailed data on fisheries subsidy payments, including the names of beneficiaries but also other data relevant to the operation of the policy. The data should be published in one place according to a clear and consistent template. The European Commission should take the lead in making this happen while member states remain responsible for the accuracy of the data.

All information should be published in a user-friendly format, e.g. an html search function and the option to download entire data-sets in a spreadsheet or csv format.