Open Europe Blog

There has been some confusion surrounding a story in Monday’s Telegraph. The headline, which reads “EU’s secret £400m for ‘crazy’ projects”, confuses two separate types of EU spending.

The ‘secret £400m’ relates to spending recorded on the Commission’s EU funds database that is marked as “confidential”. A budget line (e.g. humanitarian aid or justice and home affairs) and recipient country is provided but there are no details on how the money was spent or which organisation(s) spent it. Between 2007 and 2009 there were 727 such ‘confidential’ grants. The website merely states that “In certain cases, some parts of the information displayed on a particular grant or contract may be masked, e.g. for security reasons,” which is pretty vague when it comes to £400m of taxpayers’ money!

However, this should not be confused with the various culture projects cited in the article, which are not ‘confidential’ but funded through the EU’s culture programme that supports a range of projects of arguably differing value (some good, some irrelevant and far too many outright wasteful). What counts as a worthy project will always involve a degree of subjective judgement – and we appreciate that the people involved in a project in most cases genuinely feel that their individual project adds value. However, at a time when virtually every European government is tightening its belt, the EU continues to propose budget increases and award projects which cannot possibly qualify as good value for taxpayers’ money (which is both the fault of the Commission and member states). This is simply unacceptable.

EU spending on cultural projects is particularly interesting in this regard. Public money on culture is always controversial precisely because of the subjectivity involved. It’s also interesting because it illustrates the crucial, real-life trade-off: spending £160,000 on a ‘flying gorillas’ dance troupe is all very well, but if taxpayers are faced with a choice between having their money spent on flying gorillas or a few extra nurses – we suspect most of them would prefer the latter. In an economic downturn, with Europe smack in the middle of a sovereign debt crisis, this is the trade-off we’re facing.

And even leaving this aside, should the EU really be involved in culture in the first place or is this better handled nationally, regionally or locally? Here there’s also a democracy problem: involving the EU moves accountability for these controversial spending decisions a step further from citizens and there is no one to punish at the ballot box if taxpayers feel their money is being spent inappropriately. This, in turn, breeds contempt and the type of sentiments that the Commission professes it wants to work against through its various cultural and communication programmes.

However, what should be said is that when it comes to the cultural programme, the Commission is commendably transparent about where and by whom the money is spent (the UK also has its own system which you can search) – which is not always the case for the rest of the EU budget. So to clear this up, these projects were not funded via a ‘secretive’ EU fund and the details of the funding can be accessed publicly online.

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