Monday 23 August 2010

Northern Ireland continues to Fail to implement EU law

A few months ago the big news in Northern Ireland was that a failure to properly administer CAP funds (e.g. built on land and some land not belonging to the farmers in question was claimed for) led to the Commission itself investigating the procedures of the Department of Agriculture and Regional Development, leading to a €60 million+ penalty being imposed. Now it seems that the BBC have uncovered the long-term failure of the NI Executive to implement EU legislation on protecting horse mussels. It seems that the original complaints were made 6 years ago.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC obtained 24 months worth of documents, which show how anxious the civil service was that the lack of progress in protecting the horse mussels would be uncovered, yet nothing was done.

"Even as late as June last year, six years after the initial complaint was made, one civil servant warned: "If the Commission asks what progress has been made... the departments will be exposed"."

It wasn't as if the Agriculture and Environment Ministries - and Ministers - didn't know that something had to be done about this: in January 2009 the ministers jointly proposed action, and that exclusion zones would be set up to protect the mussels:

"In January 2009, the Environment Minister at the time, Sammy Wilson and Agriculture Minister Gildernew called a press conference at which they claimed they were riding to the aid of the horse mussels.

By then a restoration project was had begun although there were still no non-disturbance zones and today, they still don't exist.

In the last batch of emails and minutes of meetings the BBC has seen little has moved on.

The two departments are still arguing over what size the non-disturbance zones should be and where they should be, they can't even agree over whether lobster and crab fishing is damaging the mussel beds."

While it can be argued that there have been difficulties in restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland that would have delayed descisions being taken, it's hard to believe that since the St. Andrews argeement in 2007 that these decisions couldn't have been taken.

It's interesting to see how this story is being picked up. The communal blog Slugger O'Toole picked up on the story earlier this weekend, and asked whether the NI government was dysfunctional or just incompetent. The BBC focused on the issues and explained how long the situation was going on for, and what had been going on within the civil service. The main thrust is about how local government is spending - or misspending - European money and living up to its commitments under European law.

In comparison, last week BBC Newsnight covered a story on English local councils being fined for non-compliance with EU obligations, but focused on the fact that some councils would have to pay for not flying the European flag, despite being in receipt of EU money. There was then a discussion on whether the European flag should be flown more in the UK (or England, since the pointed out that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland doesn't seem to have a problem with it). Since councils were being fined money for non-compliance, I would have thought that it would be useful to focus on what areas caused the most trouble, and what problems stopped the councils from successfully carrying out legal obligations.

However, setting that aside, since the flag discussion isn't a bad idea in and of itself, looking at how the discussion was lead, it didn't seem as if the BBC knew exactly why the councils had to fly the flag. It wasn't mentioned whether it was by law or under contract that the flag had to be flown (in fact, the Belgian Ambassador on the programme said it was just contractual, rather than by a general law, as was implied). That it was contractual wasn't challenged by the presenter, but she continued to asked whether council should be forced to fly the flag by law. It seems that the lack of clarity was meant to drag out the discussion (perhaps another sign of the silly season), since I doubt that there would be much disagreement that if it's in the contract, it should be followed. While a debate on the value of European symbols could be a good one (unfortunately this debate didn't live up to that billing), I would have preferred to have seen a exposé on how European money is being (mis)spent by councils and what role the councils are playing. Surely such an angle would be more in keeping with the idealised role of the 4th estate?


  1. Eurocentric,

    The exact legal obligations concerning publicity measures with regard to co-financing by the European Union depend on the type of funds and the legal acts with rules on implementation.

    Generally, nobody outside the EU institutions is forced to apply for or to spend EU funds.

    However, if you do, you have detailed obligations concerning eligible spending, reporting and auditing requirements, as well as publicity and information measures to undertake.

    The publicity measures have been laid down even more clearly regarding projects from 2007 onwards.

    Currently, to name one example, the implementing Regulation 1828/2006 (latest consolidated version 2006R1828 of 18 October 2009) includes a plan for publicity and information and concrete measures such as flying the flag of the European Union.

    These are legal obligations, and non-compliance can lead to financial sanctions, although the Commission's UK Representation recently said that there were no measures underway to recuperate funds in some cases discussed in the press.

    As you say, the question about the symbols of the European Union, including the flag, is another matter.

    The symbols of the EU were not enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty, but continue to be in use.

    The European Parliament decided to use these symbols extensively.

    During the intergovernmental conference leading to the Treaty of Lisbon, sixteen member states made a joint declaration (number 52) on the symbols of the European Union.

    Very roughly, the declaration distinguishes between the actively pro-European member states and eleven members with more or less reserved attitudes to deeper European integration.

    Personally, I find it natural that member states fly the national flag and the EU flag side by side as a matter of course.

    The exceptions are the ones to raise my eyebrows.

  2. Further to Ralf' explanation of the rules, the flag story was very much run as "European Commission fines UK projects for not flying the flag". In fact it was the UK's internal auditors that highlighted where projects had not fulfilled the publicity requirements and docked the projects money. The European Commission has never asked the UK for corrections based on publicity requirements. And the money docked by the UK government will be able to be used for other projects within the UK. A final point: recipients of Lottery money have similar requirements to acknowledge the source of their funding.

  3. @ Ralf and Euonym - thanks for the information!