The agriculture ministry lied to the European Commission about the scale of the fraud perpetrated by farmers who received subsidies for land they did not own, investigative journalism platform Investico has claimed.
In 2017, Trouw reported that farmers in Berkelland, Gelderland province, were illegally adding verges and other green areas to their land to boost subsidies and increase the amount of manure they could use.
Farmers must register how much land they have but this is not verified by the agriculture department. Land owned by others can be included but only if farmers have permission to do so.
The e-mails uncovered by Investico show that the European Commission had its suspicions about the fraud, which it then saw confirmed by the reports in Trouw. It subsequently demanded the Dutch government guarantee subsidies were rightful on pain of a refund.
In 2018, agriculture ministry representatives tried to downplay the problem by telling the Commission when asked that “they were unaware of any other local councils where this has happened” and that they did not know how widespread the practice was in Berkelland.
“Don’t call it fraud”
Both statements are contradicted by the e-mails, which show the ministry knew some 90 hectares had been illegally added by the Berkelland farmers and cases had been found in Hof van Twente and Deventer as well.
In the e-mail exchange, civil servants warned each other to “downgrade” the problem, adding: “Don’t use the word fraud!”
The ministry then refused to carry out extensive checks to see who the added land belonged to and if farmers had permission to use it. “That is something we’re going to steer clear of, obviously,” one civil servant wrote.
In a reaction, the agriculture ministry said it did not mislead the EC because some of the other cases of fraud had not been reported at the time. It also redefined the Berkelland “fraud problem” as a practice that had been tacitly allowed.
The EC said it had not yet seen the e-mails but that it takes the matter seriously and will ask the Dutch government for more information.
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