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(DF) Video Appears to Show Agriculture Minister Encouraging Cover-up of Irregularities in EU Subsidies, Minister Says Her Remarks Taken Out of Context

June 8 (BTA) – A video which appears to show Agriculture Minister Dessislava Taneva suggesting a cover-up of irregularities in the distribution of EU subsidies for Bulgarian farmers has gone viral. The video was published by the website for investigative journalism Bivol and was widely shared and commented on social media and some media outlets. The video was apparently made during a video conference Taneva had with vegetable growers on or around March 27, 2020. Taneva’s Ministry said that the Minister’s remarks have been taken out of context. The video shows the organizational secretary of the Bulgarian association of pepper growers, Georgi Vassilev, telling Taneva that they have received inquiries by 22 of their members who said that they had received more money in coupled subsidies than expected, and asked for an explanation. Vassilev says, “We can guess why the money is more than expected. I believe the situation is the same for all vegetables [growers], not just us. What we want is, if possible, to see official figures so we can see why we have received this money.” Taneva says in the video that the Ministry will prepare the calculations. She also says: “So why do you think we are reluctant to provide lots of information? Everybody knows that the subsidies increased because of the stepped up audits. But, dear colleagues, if the European authorities start digging into this, we will be exposed. Such [high] level of irregularities shows that we should not be getting this support. In other words, if you want to bring this upon yourselves only because you want to better understand the calculations. What I suggest is that we stick to the position that there is no fraud and everything is in perfect order because otherwise they will stop it. After all, we did what the [vegetable] sector has wanted. But to brag about what frauds we are! Tomorrow they will come and tell us that we are not going to get this support any longer.” Approached for comment by Bivol, Georgi Vassilev commented that the coupled subsidies scheme had been used for years for stealing. “It is not about irregularities which have been done by mistake [by the farmers] and registered by the authorities. We are dealing with fraud here.” He told Bivol that some “farmers” play va banque and just claim subsidies without even sowing anything. The vast majority, however, spend 300-400 leva/ha on seeds and then claim between 1,200 and 2,000 leva/ha in subsidies. Both groups produce nothing. Fraud was most common for crops such as pumpkins, potatoes and onions, where fields are cultivated by machines. At first the Ministry denied that and failed to disclose the level of registered irregularities, Vassilev also told Bivol. “The Ministry keeps saying that it lacks administrative capacity and does not have enough people to do regular checks. All [farmers’] associations, including myself, proposed that our members join the inspections. We have been in agricultural production for 20 years and our members know well what to look for, and they will be the best controllers. But they said ‘No’.” By way of reply to the Bivol story, the Agriculture Ministry offered a background for the discussion in the video conference. They said that checks of farmers claiming coupled subsidies were stepped up in 2019 as a result of alerts for mis-reported areas to be subsidized. In the said year, 50 per cent of the declared land was checked which was way above the 5 per cent requirement. Never before, under no other government, have the checks been so extensive, the Ministry says, adding that the purpose was to make sure the subsidies don’t end up in the hands of people who grow crops only on paper. As a result of these checks, law-abiding farmers received higher subsidies, the Ministry explains. The biggest discrepancies between the expected and actual subsidies were in the regions of Haskovo, Plovdiv, Pleven and Blagoevgrad, says the Ministry. The Agriculture Ministry is adamant that the Minister Taneva’s comments were quoted out of context. The findings from checks are duly sent to the European Commission, the Ministry also says, adding that “it did not find it necessary ‘to brag about’ the results of checks” because it did not want to smear law-abiding farmers and because the purpose of checks, after all, was to protect the compliant expenditure of European and national funding. Speaking at a news briefing later on Monday, Taneva repeated her Ministry’s statement that her remarks had been quoted out of context. Underscoring the unprecedentedly extensive nature of the checks under the current government, she said her remarks were “made in a most responsible way and supported by all necessary facts and files, and the media could ask the Ministry for access to them.” In Bulgaria, she said, the ratio of checks under coupled subsidy schemes is 50 per cent, whereas the respective EU regulation requires 5 per cent. “The higher rate of subsidization of some vegetable growers has resulted precisely from the higher number of checks,” she said. These growers got 15 per cent more on average, while non-compliant farmers were penalized. NV/RI/LN/VE //