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?