Thanks to a few tweets from @farmsubsidy and a chat with Nosemonkey yesterday I knew I had to look out for today’s FT. Their series, researched together with The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, is entitled Europe’s Hidden Billions and will look at the way the EU spends its structural funds. I’m writing this piece on the basis of only one part of the four part series, but there are some important conclusions nevertheless.

First, vocabulary and presentation of numbers. Perhaps naively I expect the tone of pieces in the FT to be dispassionate, to let the facts of the matter do the talking. The article in the printed FT talks of programmes “riddled with waste and fraud” and the video intro to the story on the FT’s site talks of the “murky world of EU structural funds“. The way the numbers are presented is also rather inconsistent – the total budget for structural funds for 7 years (2007-2013) is €347 billion yet the headline number on the main graphic fails to mention this, and this total is then compared to two years of UK government spending on health and education. I suppose this is consistent form for the FT though, as I’ve previously commented.

Secondly, openness. I was travelling by Eurostar this morning so was able to pick up a copy of the FT but if you want access to the story off their website it’s behind the paywall. There’s a summary post at the FT’s Brussels Blog, but this too ultimately leads to articles that are not public. And this for a story about openness of information where in the printed paper they encourage readers to dig into the data and see what they can find. Then there’s the data – it’s not downloadable and there’s a single search field. If research like this is to truly reach a new level then bloggers and the open data community need to play a role too, and the opportunities for that strike me as rather restricted here.

Thirdly, the substance and the structures – why is EU structural funding in this mess? What should be done about it? I hope that’s going to be the subject of subsequent stories in the coming days in the FT. From my own perspective I think the situation is explainable although highly undesirable – administrative stasis and risk aversion in the Commission, coupled to slow bureaucratic procedures for any financial transaction that date back to attempts to stamp out corruption in the late 1990s.

It’s also possible to predict now what will happen when the budget post-2013 is negotiated in detail – countries that benefit from structural funds will lose a bit, net contributors will pay a bit less, everyone will agree to some messy compromise in a late night negotiation, the UK will realise it can’t annoy the countries of central and eastern Europe who are the main recipients, and so we will all muddle ahead, until 7 years from now the FT produces an equivalent investigation about how the problems have persisted.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or am I too cynical?

12 Comments

  1. Pingback: bloggingportal.eu Blog & Support » Blog Archive » The Week in Bloggingportal: Wikileaks is no competition for us!

  2. Hi Rob, thanks for the info. The translation part was indeed something that caught my eye. Each search term seems to be on-the-fly translated in all EU languages with Google translate API before querying the database. An interesting approach.

  3. Interesting to hear your response, Rob. Any chance of releasing the full data set soon? I know some a guy at Transparency International who is very interested in data visualisation and would love to get his hands on them.

  4. Just a quick clarification from the FT about the data.

    The records are available at eufunds.ftdata.co.uk – this is not behind the FT’s paywall, and does not require registration.

    At this stage, we are not giving users the ability to download the entire database – but you can download as a .csv file the results of any search query.

    The database translates the results, and also there is the option to translate your search term too, so you can search for say “council” and then search for that term in, say, Finnish (which happens to be “Nõukogu”).

    We are still making refinements to the search facility, and we welcome any feedback – do let me know (I’m on firstname.lastname at ft dot com). The data was only finalised last week, and we had a short time to create a search interface from scratch.

    Regards
    Rob

  5. I thought it is unlimited – and apparently it was until February, when the FT switched to Google’s updated FirstClick Free scheme. Now they allow a maximum of 5 free articles per day for those coming via Google.

    See all details about the scheme here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/feb/17/financialtimes-digital-media

  6. This is ludicrous. So they have all the apparatus for a paywall, only for it to be easy to circumvent it. Strange. Are you sure this is unlimited?

  7. … and for even more convenience there is a script for Firefox which handles the Google redirect automatically:

    1) Install Greasemonkey Firefox extension: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/748/

    2) Then install this script: http://userscripts.org/scripts/show/68072

    Each time you click on a FT article you will be redirected to Google and then back to the full article.

  8. For info: to read any article from the FT, just put the full title of the story in Google and click on the link. Anyone coming via Google is allowed to bypass the paywall.

  9. @Philip – apparently I can get 10 articles from FT a month for free. Just about all of this series and then no more…

  10. french derek

    The FT has been getting more into comment/sensationalism than straight news delivery recently (don’t know whether this is policy or a change in the EU team). I’ve written to them about my concerns – as if they’ll listen.

    On their story, though, I well remember the Thatcher government refusing all Structural Fund aid because they refused (not couldn’t) to add an equal amount. The UK lost an important amount of much-needed investment in infrastructure as a result of this – to say nothing of the jobs involved. Presumably the UKs ‘allocation’ was left on the table, like so much of the money in the FTs coverage.

  11. The FT articles are available. You just have to register – for free.

  12. I remember reading something like this in Joseph Stiglitz’s “Globalization and its Discontents” (he was talking about the IMF, not the EU – but the principle is the same). Hang on *trots off to bookshelf.*

    Okay, here we go – it’s about the dangers of so-called “bail-in” strategies:

    “The creditors suddenly had enormous leverage. A twenty-eight-year-old man in the Bucharest branch of an international private bank, by making a loan of a few million dollars, had the power to decide whether or not the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU would provide Romania with more than a billion dollars of money. In effect, the Fund had delegated its responsibility for assessing whether to lend to the country to this twenty-eight-year-old. Not surprisingly, the twenty-eight-year-old, and other thirty- and thirty-five-year-old bankers in the branches of the other international banks in Bucharest, quickly grasped their newly granted bargaining powers. Each time the Fund lowered the amount of money it demanded that the private banks put up, the private banks lowered the amount that they were willing to offer. At one point, Romania appeared to be only $36 million of private sector loans short to receive the billion-dollar aid package. The private banks assembling the money required by the IMF demanded not only top dollar (high interest rates) but, at least in one case, some discreet relaxation of Romania’s regulatory rules.”

    I wonder if this is an issue in the case of the EU’s structural funds. If the bankers (of whatever age) have grasped that by lending a small amount, they can unlock substantial structural funds for certain projects… hence, the opportunity to charge exorbitant interest rates.

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