Red tape bogs down EU agricultural support

A simpler planning process and a greater focus on results are needed if EU rural development spending is to become more efficient, the European Court of Auditors says.

Despite efforts to improve planning and implementation of rural development programs, the European Commission has fallen short with a process that is both too long and too complex, the European Court of Auditors found in a review of the EU Strategic Framework for 2014-20.

The Rural Development Program documents, despite their length and complexity – which led to delays in approvals and subsequently implementation – did little to elicit member states’ quantifiable goals.

“None of the RDPs we reviewed provided […] justification or analyzed whether funding was relevant and set at the right level for the targets concerned,” the report’s authors wrote.

“In our view, merely listing the amounts allocated to individual measures does not in itself constitute justification or show that funding is set at appropriate levels.”

For example, Greece in its RDP document stated that: “Supporting agricultural holdings that focus mainly on quality agricultural products will enhance their competitiveness and facilitate their entry into new markets […].”

Unspent money

Such general references make it difficult to demonstrate how and to what extent the selected measures satisfy identified needs, according to the report.

As a result, the ECA recommends that the European Commission work with member states to ensure reporting for 2019 “provides clear and comprehensive information.”

The auditors also recommend that the Commission simplify the programming documents and reduces the number of requirements after finding that the average time for approving the RDPs was 11.3 months. Consequently, most RDPs could not be implemented before mid-2015, the second year of the programming period.

As of early 2017, about 90 percent of European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development funds remained unspent. “This is higher than the previous programming period 2007-2013 when 83 percent remained unspent at the beginning of 2010,” the report noted.“Concentrating most of the implementation of an RDP in the second half of the programming period increases the risk of excessive focus on the absorption of allocated funds at the end of the programming period,” the auditors stated.

The ECA recommends that the European Commission work together with European Parliament and the European Council in aligning the long-term strategy with the EU budget cycle and that they conduct a comprehensive spending review before a new long-term budget is set. “These proposals could be beneficial when preparing the future Rural Development policy,” the auditors said.

The EU plans to spend close to €100 billion on rural development from 2014 through 2020, slightly higher than the €96 billion it had allocated for the 2007-2013 period. As of August 28, 2013, only €62.4 billion, or 65 percent of funds, had been spent by the 27 EU member states, according to a 2013 report released by the Commission.