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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What a ski slope 'in the world's flattest country' says about EU funding

Fresh from giving Denmark some credit for prudent use of taxpayers' cash, here's a less flattering story:

Over at Open Europe we have issued periodic briefings on projects of dubious value which have wasted EU funds – in our 2008 report on ‘100 Examples of EU Fraud and Waste’, we picked out the particularly bizarre example of a ski slope constructed on a flat Danish island where snow rarely falls. By Scandinavian standards, the island is renowned for its mild climate, and there are no high hills.

In 2006, the ski slope was given around €100,000, from the European Agricultural Fund which can provide financial support for various activities in rural areas (many have little to do with agriculture, incidentally). Following our list and reports in international media, Agriculture Minister Eva Kjer Hansen, whose ministry handled the grant, said in 2009 the "criteria for getting [EU] subsidies are not rigorous enough" and said that she would "tighten the screw". Then EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel also promised more stringent tests.

Fast forward 2012 and where are we at? Have the EU funds been paid back since they failed to create any new jobs? There has been a radical overhaul of spending criteria? Not quite.

Die Welt last week reported that the organisation "Bornholm's Friends of Skiing" (Bornholm's Skivenner) is to receive a further €33,000 EU grant for the “expansion of the ski lifts”, leading to another round of protests and disbelief.

On average, the ski slope stays open three weeks a year, according to Swedish Television, though last winter - which saw exceptional snow fall - the slope managed to stay open between the end of December and March (hats off). It had a rocky start, however. According to some reports, in its first year of operation, the ski-slope was only open for one and a half days, and nine the year after. During a normal Bornholm winter, snow cannons are of little help, because the snow only remains if the temperature is at minus two degrees on at least two consecutive days.

Hans Jørgen Jensen, the head of "Bornholm's Friends of Skiing", calls the the project a "giant success" (en kæmpe succes), though admitting that "the ski slope isn't a commercial project but I don't have bad conscience. It's about quality of life and is focused on the young."

Now skiing is fun, and it may be that the slope has proven popular with the locals, but few would argue that this constitutes a good use of taxpayers' money. Fundamentally, at the last time of counting, the island registered a GDP per capita of €31,000 - significantly above the EU average of €24,900, posing the question of whether it really needed development geared funding in the first place.

And as German MEP Inge Grässle told Danish daily Politiken:
"it's pointless to give EU money to a ski slope in a place like Bornholm where extraordinary climate conditions are needed in order for the money to generate any type of value. [EU subsidies for downhill skiing] in "one of the world's flattest countries need to come to end."
No kiddin'. So whose responsibility is it for paying out the grant? As is symptomatic of EU-funding, accountability appears to fall into a black hole somewhere between member states and the European Commission.

EU Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Dacian Ciolos’s response to the grant is already a classic:
“This is fully in accordance with Article 56 of the Implementing Regulation 1698/2005, which provides support for recreational activities in rural areas…The individual projects are evaluated by the national authorities, because they know the local situation best.”
Ah, it's consistent with Article 56 of the Implementing Regulation 1698/2005. All must be well then. (And they wonder why the citizens find it increasingly difficult to both understand and support the EU).

The current Danish government (which took office last year) blames its predecessors, with Agriculture Minister Carsten Hansen pointing out that it was the previous centre-right government which signed off the grant for the skiing lift. He promises that "The whole administration of the subsidies will be streamlined" (sounds familiar).

Former Agriculture Minister Eva Kjer Hansen who was in charge when the grant was paid out despite pledging to "tighten the screws" is now an MP and member of the Danish Parliament's EU Scrutiny Committee. She defends herself, saying:
"My responsibility was to look at the rules in Denmark [as opposed to EU-level rules?]. And much was done to ensure that the the impact [of the projects] were more concrete and that the more thought-through projects were the ones receiving the money."
She adds,
"It's doubtful whether we get the most out of the subsidies. Therefore we always have this discussion about whether the projects are justified. Or if the money has been handed out merely because there was EU subsidies there which simply had to be used for this or that silly project."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the idea of having the EU involved in rural and regional development funding in the first place.

So if I think that taxpayers' cash shouldn't be spent on a 'development' project involving a ski slope on a mostly flat and largely snow-free island with a GDP of 24% above the EU average - who should I talk to?

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