The European Union institutions are currently working towards an agreement on the future of the EU’s fisheries policies for the period 2014-2020. The basis for the discussion is the Commission’s various legislative proposals made over the course of 2011.
The EU’s fisheries policy comprise a number of different elements, probably the most well known are the catch limits and quotas that determine the amount of fish that can be caught. Another element is the subsidies paid to the fishing industry. Fishsubsidy.org is a project of EU Transparency which aims to keep track of who gets what in fishing subsidies, and encourage a debate about whether fishing subsidies are working for or against more sustainable management of marine natural resources.
Currently, the EU awards subsidies (matched by national co-financing) under the European Fisheries Fund. The rules for transparency of these subsidies are poor and the implementation of the rules has been even worse. To read more on this, see the fishsubsidy.org report Eyes Wide Shut.
Having been very critical of both the performance of the Commission and Member States in ensuring financial transparency in the European Fisheries Fund, we at fishsubsidy.org were encouraged to read the proposed transparency rules for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which will replace the EFF from 2014 onwards.
Article 143 (subsection 2) of the EMFF proposal states:
Member States shall in order to ensure transparency in the support from the EMFF maintain a list of operations in CSV or XML format which shall be accessible through the single website or the single website portal providing a list and summary of the operational programme.
The list of operations shall be updated at least every three months.
Annex IV of the proposed new regulation sets out the information to be published:
The list of operations referred to Article 143 shall contain, in at least one of the official languages of the Member State, the following data fields:
– Beneficiary name (only legal entities; no natural persons shall be named);
– Community Fleet Register (CFR) number of fishing vessels as referred to in Article 10 of Commission Regulation (EC) No 26/2004 of 30 December 200343 (to be completed only where the operation is linked to a fishing vessel)
– Operation name;
– Operation summary;
– Operation start date;
– Operation end date (expected date for physical completion or full implementation of the operation);
– Total eligible expenditure;
– Amount of EU contribution;
– Operation postcode;
– Name of union priority;
– Date of last update of the list of operations.
The headings of the data fields and the names of the operations shall be also provided in at least one other official language of the European Union.
This proposal follows very closely the recommendations we have made for how transparency in fisheries subsidies could be improved. It is to be welcomed. Both the form of the data (machine-readable CSV or XML), the regularity of publication (every three months) and the details of the data (who, what, where, when, how much, why?) set a new standard for transparency in EU funds. If this is agreed by the Parliament and Member States, the EU’s fisheries subsidies will be the most transparent of all EU funds – certainly far more transparent than farm subsidies or regional funds.
The question of whether natural persons should be included among the beneficiaries is a difficult one. On the one hand, the ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union in a case relating to farm subsidies, attempts to strike a new balance between the rights of privacy of beneficiaries and the importance of transparency in public policy in an open society. We believe that in the case of farm subsidies, the Court of Justice struck the wrong balance and reached the wrong conclusion. We believe that the public right to information is outweighs the right of business operators to privacy. There is no obvious reason why the names of business operators who receive EU funds for fishing activities ought to be kept secret. There is no stigma attached to receiving a subsidy of this kind. It is not clear that the business operator could come to any harm as a result of this information being made public.
Indeed, the EU Advocate General, in her opinion on the same Court of Justice case, specifically singled out transparency of fisheries subsidies.
“The fisheries sector is one in which payments are made directly to beneficiaries but the objective of transparency is achieved in a different, perhaps more targeted, way. Thus, Article 51 of Council Regulation (EC) No 1198/2006 (57) makes arrangements for publication such that there is a clear link between the grant, the project and the individual. It is therefore relatively easy to see how such information could inform a public debate on financing in the fisheries sector. Such a link between, on the one hand, the beneficiary and the amount of aid that he receives and, on the other hand, the purpose for which the aid is granted is lacking in the arrangements for publication under examination in the present case.” (paragraph 111)
We believe that DG Mare ought to have thought more carefully about this and as part of its consultations on the future of the EMFF should have consulted with both the fishing industry and civil society on the pros and cons of complete transparency in fisheries subsidies. DG Agri has gone through this process over the past twelve months in preparation for a forthcoming new regulation on transparency in farm subsidies.
We believe that the Commission has over-reacted in response to the Court of Justice ruling. We hope that the Commission will reconsider or the Council and/or Parliament will intervene to improve what is otherwise an excellent transparency law. At the very least, if names of natural persons are to be kept secret, then rather than omit publication of entire payment records, only the beneficiary names should be redacted from the data. The remaining data describing each subsidy payment should continue to be published.