Offenders to return EU farm grants

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union governments will have to return 128 million euros ($160.6 million) in misspent farm subsidies, with France and Italy singled out as the worst offenders, the European Commission said on Friday. Italy has to hand back more than 85 million euros that was incorrectly spent in the fruit and vegetable sectors and for not paying farmers their subsidies on time in various sectors. France fell afoul of the EU’s strict rules for controlling banana quality and quantities, which led to subsidies being overestimated. It was saddled with a bill for 40 million euros. Lesser offenders included Belgium, which will have to pay back nearly 6 million euros for poor checks on the amount of its butter production, which qualifies for subsidies from Brussels. Portugal, which was criticized for its failure to comply with EU rules on flax and hemp production, was hit with an invoice of just over 3 million euros, the Commission said. Around three times a year, the Commission monitors accounts to check that the EU’s farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which amount to some 44 billion euros a year, are being properly spent. If not, offending countries are ordered to return money. And if they fail to comply, the Commission can halt the subsidies. «This is a crucial process in ensuring that CAP money is used properly and that all unduly spent amounts are recovered,» EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said. Some countries managed to get more cash out of Brussels for various technical corrections in their favor, although the only one to end up being a net recipient was Greece. Greece will receive an extra 10.6 million euros, nearly all of which relates to olive oil subsidies between 1999 and 2001 on the islands of the Aegean Sea.