Mafia rake in millions from EU farm subsidies scam

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The cost of EU corruption To put that figure into a global context it could end world hunger

The cost of EU corruption To put that figure into a global context it could end world hunger

Italian police have broken and dismantled a assive Mafia operation in Sicily which had been defrauding the European Union of millions of euros in funds destined to farmers.

Since 2013, the Tortorici Mafia — named after a town in the mountainous Nebrodi area in the island’s northeast — had defrauded about 10 million euros ($11 million) from the EU, said prosecutors.

A total of 94 people were arrested in early-morning raids and 151 agricultural businesses tied to Mafia members were seized, authorities said during a press conference in the northeast city of Messina.

Those arrested included the heads of two Mafia families, a notary, entrepreneurs and public administrators tasked with helping farmers access funds.

In 2012, Ignazio Di Vincenzo, a farmer in the Sicilian town of Tortorici, received an unwelcome summons: a high-ranking member of the local mafia clan needed a favour.

Gino Bontempo wanted to rent Di Vincenzo’s land to claim lucrative EU subsidies in his daughter’s name. It was, as they say, an offer Di Vincenzo could not refuse.

He who behaves like a sheep gets eaten by the wolf.

In a police interview in 2017, he explained how he went along with the request, though he never saw any rent. “Chi pecora si fa, il lupo se la mangia,” he shrugged regretfully. He who behaves like a sheep gets eaten by the wolf.

Over the past decade, crime syndicates have siphoned off millions in EU agricultural funds, according to a vast investigation in Sicily involving 600 police officers, which culminated in 94 arrests on January 15. Bontempo was among those detained, accused of fraud, extortion and mafia association. A document from the Italian Senate listed him as a mafia boss, but his lawyer said he maintained his innocence over the grounds of his arrest.

Italian police arrested the 94 people in pre-dawn raids last week as part of an investigation into an alleged Mafia scam that defrauded European Union agriculture funds of millions of euros.

Prosecutors said they believed the fraud was orchestrated by two Mafia clans in eastern Sicily who obtained millions of euros in EU farm subsidies for land they did not own between 2010 and 2017.

Amongst those arrested were, a number of public officials who help farmers apply for EU aid, a local mayor and an accountant. Some 150 companies were also seized as part of the investigation.

“The Mafia (there) has such power that they took control of 15 hectares of land through a simple phone call. No threats were necessary,” Judge Sergio Mastroeni wrote in the arrest warrant.

“With the Mafia, you only have to say your name, if necessary mentioning the fact that you just got out of prison.”

However, Mastroeni said the families had managed to obtain the funds thanks to the help of “white-collar workers” who enabled them to negotiate the bureaucratic world of EU funding.

$60 billion a year in farm subsidies

The EU pays out nearly $60 billion a year in subsidies to support farmers around the 28-nation bloc and keep rural communities alive.

Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova said the police operation showed the changing face of Sicilian mobsters, traditionally associated with drug trafficking and protection rackets but now looking to profit from EU scams.

“The gravity of what has emerged is enormous,” she said in a statement. “It is also clear how damaging it is to take significant European resources away from good agriculture and quality businesses, which make up the majority (of firms) in eastern Sicily, and direct them towards Mafia gangs.”

Abuse of the system is not restricted to Italy. Journalist Ján Kuciak was murdered in 2018 while investigating allegations of mafia involvement in subsidy fraud in Slovakia. Mobsters have also been caught on wiretaps planning to export the fraud model to Romania, according to investigators.

Until now, farm subsidies have been a sacred cow of the EU, and were a decisive foundation in building a borderless economy. So as discussion on reforms to agricultural policy continue, the EU may be happy to portray it as a few bad apples rather than rotten to its core.

The Italian police are willing to cooperate internationally, but often, they admit, the Mafiosi are one step ahead and the culture in some areas seems ingrained.

Cleaning up the abuse of EU funds needs massive resources, however. As investigating judge Salvatore Mastroeni told the Gazzetta del Sud: “At Tortorici we need to wiretap even the air and the trees.”

The European Union spends £50.71 billion a year subsidising agriculture. But a chunk of that money emboldens strongmen, enriches politicians and finances corrupt dealing.

‘It’s an absolutely corrupt system’: How EU farm subsidies are abused by oligarchs and populists

A recent report alleged government officials in Hungary and the Czech Republic misused €60 billion in farming subsidies that money meant for farming was used to prop up “oligarchs and political patrons” in central and eastern Europe.

EU officials have defended the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its rules after an investigation exposed corrupt and politicised use of the subsidies in parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

The EU today denied its £51 billion agriculture budget is used to prop up political corruption in eastern countries following a damning report into fraud.

The European Commission – which is responsible for legislation, upholding treaties and managing the EU budget – claims to have ‘very clear rules for how funds should be managed’ and ‘takes any allegation of misuse very seriously,’ a spokesman insisted.

A detailed report by the New York Times alleged that some of the EU’s farm subsidies from its common agriculture policy (CAP) prop up ‘oligarchs and political patrons’ in, most notably, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The report found the system to be ‘warped by corruption and self-dealing’ and argued that it had become too important to keeping the EU together to be fundamentally reformed.

A spokesman said the EU anti-fraud office, OLAF, looks into such allegations and added that the main responsibility for correct spending of the budget falls on member state governments.

The EU gave the stock answer to criticisms of the EU place the blame on national governments., saying:

‘We are not here to replace national governments,’ she said. ‘We cannot and will not do the work for them.’

UK Rich list landowners receive massive subsidies from the EU

One in five of the biggest recipients of European farming subsidies in Britain are billionaires and millionaires on the Sunday Times Rich List, research suggests.

Rankings by Greenpeace of the 100 companies and landowners receiving the biggest basic payments under the Common Agricultural Policy shows 20 of them are wealthy enough to feature on the Rich List, up from 16 the year before.

Sandringham Farms, the estate owned by the Queen, received £557,707, while Grosvenor Farms Ltd, which farms the Duke of Westminster’s estate, raked in £437,434. The billionaire landowner died in August and left his fortune to his 25-year-old son.

The Queen, received £557,707 EU subsidies

The government has promised to maintain CAP subsidies after Britain leaves the EU, until 2020 when a domestic system will be put in place. It comes as the UK decides on the future of farming subsidies after Brexit, with Greenpeace calling for public money to support schemes that deliver public goods such as protecting wildlife, preventing flooding and producing sustainable food.

Dozens of MPs and peers, including some with vast inherited wealth, own or manage farms that collectively have received millions of pounds in European Union subsidies.

An analysis by the Guardian and the environmental group Friends of the Earth identified 48 parliamentarians who claimed £5.7m in farming subsidies under the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available.

The largest single payment – £473,000 – was paid to a Sussex farming firm run by the 18th Duke of Norfolk, a large landowner whose estate dates from the middle ages.

Conservative MP Richard Drax, descendant of a 19th-century slave-owner and current resident of the family ancestral seat of Charborough House in Dorset, owns a farm that received £411,000.

Matt Ridley, the fifth Viscount Ridley, runs two firms which received £316,000. The Blagdon estate in Northumberland has been owned by his family since 1700. The hereditary peer was forced to resign as chairman of the Northern Rock bank in 2007 after presiding over its financial collapse.

Guy Shrubsole, a Friends of the Earth campaigner, questioned whether the politicians would have their own financial interests or the public interest uppermost in their minds when they came to vote on reforming the subsidy system. He said: “We hope that politicians will put the public interest first and vote to radically overhaul farm subsidies so that, in future, public money goes to pay for public goods, like restoring nature and reducing flooding.”

The list of payments has been compiled from the declarations of financial interests – such as land ownership and company directorships – made by MPs and peers in parliament and the official database of EU payments in the latest available year (up to October 2017) that is published by the government. LINK HERE.

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