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Tuesday, 27 September 2005 - Strasbourg OJ edition

20. Question Time (Commission)

  President. The next item is Question Time (B6-0331/2005).

We will be taking a number of questions to the Commission.

Part 1


  President. Question No. 39 by Albert Jan Maat (H-0735/05)

Subject: Spreading of infectious animal diseases into Europe

The current world situation regarding infectious animal diseases is very worrying. The FAO recently warned that bird flu is likely to be carried to the Middle East and Europe by migrating birds. Foot and mouth disease recently reached Russia via China and Central Asia.

What measures is the Commission taking to prevent these infectious animal diseases from spreading into the EU? What geographical region do these measures emphasise? What is the role of vaccination? How are people in Europe informed, for example about the ban on importing food from third countries in luggage?


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) As Commissioner Kyprianou has been held up by a meeting on precisely this problem, he has asked me to stand in for him, and I am pleased to do so. I would like, on behalf of the Commission, to restate the commitment we made to inform the European Parliament systematically and transparently on the issue of the spread of infectious animal diseases in Europe. Commissioner Kyprianou, who is responsible for health and consumer protection, has kept your Parliament informed of the latest developments and of the measures taken by the Commission.

Yesterday evening, he presented the situation regarding animal health to the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, as he had also done to the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety on 14 September. The Commissioner has also already provided the honourable Member with information in writing on the action taken by the Commission to control these threats.

The discovery of outbreaks of avian influenza and foot-and-mouth disease in Asia of course gave rise to fears that these diseases would arrive in the European Union. All the legal measures needed to prevent the possibility of these diseases being introduced via animals and products of animal origin have already been taken. These include, in particular, the requirement to inform passengers in international ports and airports of their obligations in this regard.

The Commission uses its regulatory powers to ensure that the existing provisions are continually updated. It is in this connection that the Member States were recommended to strengthen the application of existing measures and controls at the EU’s borders in order to ensure that only animals and products that meet Community requirements are imported.

As regards vaccination, emergency vaccination is already possible if outbreaks of avian influenza are discovered. The Commission has proposed a new directive regarding avian influenza. This proposal will enable us to adopt an approach to vaccination that takes into account the latest scientific developments in knowledge of the disease and the most recent epidemics. Clearly, we must not forget that vaccination on its own cannot guarantee proper prevention and control of the disease. With regard to foot-and-mouth disease, similar provisions have already been put in place. Those are the answers I wished to give on behalf of Mr Kyprianou, Madam President.


  Albert Jan Maat (PPE-DE). – (NL) Madam President, I thank the Commissioner and his colleague, Mr Kyprianou, for the response. There are two points on which I would appreciate a straightforward answer from the Commission. The Commissioner states that vaccination cannot be prevention, but that means that we should let it happen first before we use the vaccine, while the vaccine is already available. Poultry already receives 10 different types of vaccines, so why not add one against avian flu? It exists, we can use it, and it is being produced in the European Union. So why are poultry farmers and countries not given the opportunity to use it to prevent an outbreak of the disease?

The same applies to legislation. We have just been talking about the simplification of legislation. The use of a preventive vaccine would lead to far fewer rules in the EU, and that must surely appeal to the Commission.


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) I did not say that vaccination was not useful. I am simply saying, and I even stated specifically, that emergency vaccination was already possible if outbreaks of avian influenza were discovered. We know, of course, that vaccination is a preventative measure but that it is not enough and that we must, at the same time, draw up a whole series of provisions that the draft directive aims to lay down. That is why I think, Mr Maat, that the Commission is not at all reticent with regard to vaccination. We also hope to develop this vaccination in view of all the scientific data that enable us to increase our knowledge of the disease, but the Commission would like to have a broader provision than simple vaccination to prevent the introduction of this disease into Europe.


  President. Question No. 40 by Catherine Stihler (H-0705/05)

Subject: Air passenger compensation

Some constituents recently contacted me in connection with difficulties experienced in relation to a My Travel Airways holiday charter flight from Canaria to Glasgow. They experienced 15 hours of delay and enormous inconvenience but received no compensation from the charter flight company. They were among 49 passengers denied boarding because of airline regulations on crew shortage after a crew member had to be taken to hospital. My constituents sought compensation under recent EU legislation on denied boarding, but My Travel maintained that the new rules did not apply to the case as 'the reason for the delay was unforeseen circumstances'.

Could the Commission indicate whether holiday charter flights are bound by EU legislation on compensation for air passengers and whether staff shortages may be defined as an unforeseen circumstance under EU legislation?


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) Madam President, I would like to inform Mrs Stihler that charter flights are also covered by the scope of Regulation 261/2004. As such, airlines operating this type of flight are of course obliged to comply with the provisions of that regulation.

From what you said, this was a case of a long delay caused by a crew shortage, and therefore not denied boarding. In this case, no financial compensation is laid down as it is for denied boarding and cancellations. Nevertheless, airlines are of course obliged to provide appropriate assistance – drinks, food, means of communication and hotel rooms, as appropriate – in order to minimise the inconvenience suffered by passengers. This assistance is compulsory in the case of denied boarding, long delays and cancellations, even if they are due to force majeure.

With regard to financial compensation, airlines are only exempted from providing it for cancellations and denied boarding caused by exceptional circumstances. So, can a crew shortage be considered to be an exceptional circumstance? This matter must be assessed on an individual basis, in view of all the factual aspects, in particular the organisation of replacements and the availability of reserve crews on site. Mrs Stihler, you will appreciate that, without all those details, the Commission cannot issue a definitive judgment.

However, on the basis of Article 16(2) of the regulation, passengers may now complain, if necessary, to national monitoring bodies specially authorised to deal with their complaints and their differences with airlines. I think that is all I can say, given that the best of regulations cannot cover all specific situations and that such situations need to be assessed case by case, on the basis of all the elements. In this specific case, it would be necessary to check whether replacement staff were available at the local airport for a return flight or whether organisational provisions were in place. As I said, though, the passengers in question now have the option of turning to the body set up at national level to deal with their complaints.


  Catherine Stihler (PSE). – It is an interesting case. I find it fascinating that when air stewardesses have colds and cannot travel on an airline there must be immediate backup to cover staff shortages in those circumstances. So I wonder whether in this case the systems were just not in place.

Only today another Scottish constituent, a Mr Duncan Thorpe, raised the question as to whether a delay of five hours or more entitles him to compensation. According to the Europa website, where there is a delay of five hours or more the airline must offer to refund the ticket. Yet the company that replied to my constituent stated, and I quote: 'Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 does not impose any obligation on carriers to offer or pay compensation when passengers are delayed'.

Can the Commission outline how it is monitoring the successful implementation of this directive?

Thank you for your consideration, Madam President: it is an important matter.


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) It is clear that this regulation includes an obligation for each Member State to set up an authority capable of investigating requests. However, this regulation is too recent for me to be able to give you an assessment of its implementation today. It goes without saying, Mrs Stihler, that we will ensure that these new provisions on passenger rights can indeed be implemented in practice; I can assure you that we will see to it that, as of 2006, we will be able to make an assessment that will enable us, where appropriate, Madam President, Mrs Stihler, to further strengthen, if need be, the measures taken. I would stress, however, that we are in the early stages of a policy that aims to provide passengers with a guarantee of new rights. You must, of course, give us some time to assess the implementation measures and, perhaps, to strengthen or correct them.


  Bill Newton Dunn (ALDE). – Commissioner, like the questioner I too have received queries from my constituents. This is an area that is extremely badly understood by the public. It is one of the great benefits of Europe which we have recently brought to the public and we should publicise it much better. I am not suggesting a new directive, but could the 25 Commission information offices in the 25 national capitals not put the details on their websites and print a one-page leaflet providing the public with real information on their rights, which may be obscured by the airlines?


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) Thank you for your suggestion. The charter is, of course, already displayed in airports, and it refers to a national body responsible for investigating complaints. That said, you are right that we need to go further in informing consumers and in this field we need to develop much more specific communications that are much more accessible to all. I would ask you to be forgiving, because these provisions are new, but I assure you that I personally am seeing to it that the provisions that I proposed and that Parliament and the Council have agreed to adopt will really be applied. For this to happen, we must indeed inform people. Thank you for your suggestion and thank you, too, to the author of the question, Mrs Stihler, for having given some specific examples. It is on the basis of these examples that we will gradually create a body of case-law and also achieve better application of the texts.


  Josu Ortuondo Larrea (ALDE). – (ES) Commissioner, a few weeks ago I underwent the experience of being denied boarding by one of the main European national airlines, and the rights that were read to me then were not in line with the rules approved by this European Parliament.

Does the Commission know which, and how many, Member States have transposed the European legislation and incorporated it into their own legislation, and which, and how many, have not?


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) Madam President, we are talking about a regulation; consequently, no transposition is required. To put it simply, you can notify me by letter of the Member State to which you are referring, and I will make every effort to check whether, in this instance, the Member State has indeed set up the body responsible for monitoring the application of the provisions in question.


  President. Question No. 41 by Athanasios Pafilis (H-0756/05)

Subject: Serious problems with flight safety

The air disasters which occurred during the summer have heightened concerns, particularly among airline employees and the users of airline services. Inadequate checks, which employees themselves say are largely due to deregulation of the markets and fierce competition, the contravention of safety rules to achieve immediate and maximum profit, and the welter of companies appearing and disappearing from the market without providing the necessary safety guarantees, are transforming transport from a social service into a business whose sole motive is profit.

Does the Commission consider that the single open sky and the uncontrolled pursuit of profit have contributed to the reduction in checks? Will it take measures to ensure that effective safety checks are made on all flights and take account of employees' proposals (e.g. pre-flight checks by a qualified, licensed mechanic)?


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) Madam President, first of all, I can well understand the emotion that followed all of those accidents in August. Obviously the Commission cannot comment on the causes of those accidents: that is a job for the experts.

I would like to say to Mr Pafilis that we cannot draw a connection between liberalisation, the opening up of air travel to competition, and any safety issue that could be attributed to this opening up to competition. It could also be borne in mind that, at the same time as liberalising the internal market in air travel, the Commission strengthened the safety rules. The Community acquis in the field of aviation safety has grown considerably and changes in safety-related data show that the numbers of accidents and deaths have continued to fall since the launch of the liberalisation process. This process, at the same time, has made it possible to give many European citizens the option of cheaper air travel.

Having said that, safety is, now more than ever, a top priority for the aviation industry, and monitoring of Community aircraft, which is, of course, the responsibility of the national authorities, which have the freedom to refuse to grant a licence, is a point that we must monitor very carefully.

With regard to pre-flight checks, the provisions in force require Community airlines to comply with very strict safety standards. The applicable operational regulations have been drawn up by the Joint Aviation Authorities. These rules specify that an operator shall ensure that all personnel assigned to, or directly involved in, ground and flight operations are properly instructed, have demonstrated their abilities in their particular duties and are aware of their responsibilities and the relationship of such duties to the operation as a whole. I have quoted rules that could, Madam President, have been expressed in simpler terms, for which I apologise. I would really like European texts to be simpler, but this is a text by the Joint Aviation Authorities.

What I would like to say, in response to Mr Pafilis, is that, since the beginning of February, I have taken the initiative of asking the Council of Transport Ministers about the possibility of drawing up a European list of companies that have been subject to bans or flight restrictions. It has to be said that, due to the cautiousness of the Member States, we have progressed less quickly than I would have liked.

Then, this summer, came the air disasters of which you are aware and to which Mr Pafilis referred, and it was at that point that Parliament, presented with this amended proposal for a regulation, adopted, at the proposal of Mrs De Veyrac as rapporteur, some extremely positive amendments harmonising the criteria under which a company can be banned or have its flight options restricted. I think that this proposal can now be adopted fairly rapidly, in November. I will therefore be able to draw up this European blacklist, which, obviously, will enable citizens to be better informed regarding the quality of the air operator they are using.

Then there is the problem of third countries. The Commission has also worked to institute stricter controls with the famous SAFA Directive. That is indeed a directive, and it must be transposed in all Member States. It must be transposed before April 2006. By relying firstly on the draft regulation on the identity of the operator, which includes assessment criteria for companies that will enable us to get started on the blacklist, and also on the SAFA directive, transposed in all the Member States, with regard to the aircraft of third countries, this will give us an instrument that, I hope, will mark a very important step in aviation safety.

Those are the various points I wanted to make to Mr Pafilis who, quite rightly, questioned me on the safety of air transport.


  Athanasios Pafilis (GUE/NGL).(EL) Commissioner, if this situation continues until 2020, we shall have one accident a week. In other words, sacrifice of human life for the sake of profit. This is not our appraisal; it is the appraisal of the International Air Transport Agency. It is precisely on this point that we consider that the policy of liberalisation, of so-called 'free competition', has created a situation of unaccountability which, among other things, makes victims both of its passengers and the workers themselves. Both the governments and everyone involved, from either the public sector or the private sector, are fully aware of the state of aircraft, just as they are fully aware of the huge problems which crews face with the pressure exerted on them from changes in labour relations.

You are not doing anything about this; you are doing the opposite. As I do not have much time, I ask you this: why do you not withdraw the directive which allows checks to be carried out by unlicensed mechanics on the aircraft in question, rather than allowing this practice, which has proven to be a disaster?


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) Mr Pafilis, I do not know which directive you mean. I would simply repeat that you cannot claim that the European Union has not strengthened safety legislation. We now have a European Aviation Safety Agency, which is recognised as having the desired authority, including by the US FAA. My predecessor – and I myself will continue along this path – really did strengthen the whole body of safety legislation.

You are right: we cannot open the aviation industry up to competition without at the same time ensuring that we have a solid regulatory framework regarding safety. We are, however, making progress, and I would like to pay tribute, Madam President, to the European Parliament, which has helped us a great deal in this matter. I am very happy to see that we are going to have absolutely identical criteria in all the Member States where, as you know, the civil aviation authorities are responsible for safety.

We will therefore have common criteria that will enable us, with regard both to European companies and companies from third countries, to ascertain that a company cannot transport passengers because it does not provide the necessary security guarantees. I think that we certainly still have a lot of work to do in this field, but we have already taken a big step forward and I will tell you quite plainly that I am not one of those who will allow competition to become established outside a precise and effective regulatory framework regarding safety.


  Georgios Karatzaferis (IND/DEM).(EL) Commissioner, the report on the Helios aircraft which crashed in Grammatiko is now out: both pilots had heart conditions. One had heart arteries which were 90% blocked. In other words, he was almost dead before he died. That is what happens when small airlines fly without checks being carried out.

We in Greece have Olympic Airways, a company which has not had the slightest accident in 30 years. You, of course, are sounding its death knell at the moment.

I make a plea on behalf of the Greek people to give Olympic Airways a chance so that we have the security of flying with this airline. Forget competition. There may, nonetheless, be a way of securing the survival of this national airline, which is a guarantee for Greece and Europe. Are you thinking about giving Olympic Airways a chance, Commissioner? It is, if you like, useful for Greece ...

(The President cut off the speaker)


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) Mr Karatzaferis, I am shortly going to propose extending the competences of the European Aviation Safety Agency, which will enable it, in particular, to monitor flight procedures and everything related to the human factor, because you are right that pilots must be properly trained and must be able to pilot aircraft. This proposal will be tabled shortly and, believe me, we are quite determined to keep a close eye on those companies that do not provide the necessary guarantees. That will also be the purpose of the blacklist, the updating of which will be greatly facilitated by the work of the European Aviation Safety Agency.


  Georgios Toussas (GUE/NGL).(EL) Madam President, Commissioner, we have no need for sentimentality and bombast on such a serious issue and we believe that you really do need to get a grip on this problem. The problem of the safety of air carriers is not going to be resolved with black, yellow, green or red lists. We really do need to get to the nub of the matter and identify the causes.

This is where you really need to check with your colleagues, especially as you have received a letter to this effect from the parties directly involved and interested, the mechanics responsible for pre-flight checks on aircraft, that the directive of the European Union – the number of which escapes me at the moment – allows for checks to be carried out by employees ...

(The President cut off the speaker)


  Jacques Barrot, Vice-President of the Commission. (FR) I would like to remind you that the blacklist concerned, which, I hope, will come into being early in 2006, will result in companies being banned from operating throughout the territory of the European Union. It is, after all, a very rigorous measure, which means that it will probably have a very dissuasive effect, as companies that do not meet the security standards will know that they risk being put on the blacklist, in other words of being banned from flying over the whole of the European Union. Recent events have shown that, up until now, there were bans issued by national civil aviation authorities that did not apply over the whole territory of the European Union. That was obviously not very reassuring for the people of Europe. However, this step that, I hope, we will take at the beginning of 2006, will give us a guarantee that unreliable companies will feature on the blacklist and will experience all the disadvantages of being banned from flying over the European Union.


Part 2


  President. Question No. 42 by Dimitrios Papadimoulis (H-0669/05)

Subject: Completion of Greek national land registry

In reply to my written question E-2710/04 concerning the national land registry, the Commission indicated that the Greek Government proposal did not include the legal validation of active property rights and that the Commission did not envisage any further financial contributions to the land registry project. In fact, the proposal is seeking funding for an interim rather than a finalised project which means that no guarantees can be given regarding its completion.

What measures have been taken to ensure that even this minimal funding will in fact lead to the establishment of the land registry?

What is the reason for the extremely low level of Community funding, in particular for the maintenance of a digital database of active property titles and how can this be reconciled with facile demands for a finalised result?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. Indeed there is a question about the project data and IT infrastructure for a modern land registry that is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund. The purpose of this project is to establish a digital database of registered active property rights, which are presently recorded on paper in mortgage offices, together with a spatial reference. This electronic registry of active titles will certainly offer a valuable service to citizens and business. We are confident that this project can be completed quickly and quite cheaply. Also, the project will establish coastal and forest zones according to Greek legislation, where there is a presumption of state ownership of the land except in urban areas. It will be for the Greek state to pursue its claim to ownership, in the manner it considers appropriate.

The legal validation of active property rights is not included in the project co-financed by the European Union through the ERDF; that action will be financed exclusively from national funds. In our view that is sufficient explanation for the apparently low level of Community funding for the project to which the honourable Member referred.

The Greek authorities requested an ERDF co-financing rate of 50%, a level that the Commission has approved.

I believe that answers Mr Papadimoulis' basic question.


  Dimitrios Papadimoulis (GUE/NGL).(EL) I thank you, Commissioner, for your reply, but I want to ask you a specific question: on 5 October 2001, the Commissioner responsible at the time, Mr Barnier, announced the conditional continuation of cofinancing for the entire national land register in Greece.

Today, according to your announcements, on the basis of valid calculations, there is only funding of 2.5% of the overall cost of the project, which totals EUR 1.65 billion.

I ask you therefore: to what do we owe this huge reduction in the Community contribution? Why is the Commission refusing further funding, as Mr Barnier promised?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. The financing provided by the Commission is EUR 40 million – 50% of this element of the project – which comes under the ERDF co-financing system. The reason is that the remaining part – the legal validation of the property rights – cannot be included in the co-funded project because the Commission considers this a legal matter and one that is therefore outside the scope of the co-funded project. As you probably know, the legal framework in this context in Greece is quite unstable: it changes fairly often. It is therefore the responsibility of the Greeks to finalise the land registries, for which we provide technical instruments through our financing of this project.

It must be said that the legal validation work would consist largely of the work of the lawyers, so that expenditure – which would take the form of lawyers' fees and similar costs – would, in any case, not be eligible for finance from the ERDF. That is the reason for this low level of financing and why the Commission cannot provide financial assistance for the remaining part of the project.


  Georgios Papastamkos (PPE-DE).(EL) Madam President, I too join my voice – the voice of opposition against the previous Greek Government – with that of Mr Papadimoulis: his opposition stance is understandable, since he has referred to the year 2001.

The Commissioner is being called on to answer, to clarify why there is no provision for further funding for the land registry project, to clarify the negative aspects of this entire dossier from 2001 onwards. Of course, I will not omit to say that I consider it important to fund precursor products supporting the land register, supporting the land registrations which will follow.


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. Madam President, I should say one more thing to help explain why the level of funding is so low. We should bear in mind that this project will generate revenues; Greek citizens will have to pay a fee when requesting the certificates. That was one of the factors that prevented us from offering higher cofinancing.

You referred to something that took place in 2001 and I am not sure that I remember it correctly. There was a previous land registry project in Greece which was a failure – if I may put it that strongly – and that is why the Commission decided to recover the full amount of the contribution. We then started to reach agreement on the second project when we identified the part of the project which we could finance without any doubts or problems. I understand that there are many concerns, which you have expressed here. I can offer to look into it more deeply and, with my colleagues in the DG, to see whether this limited participation is justified on the evidence available. At this stage, that is all I can offer. I will ask to be informed once more about all the details that prompted this funding level of EUR 40 million. That is all I can say at the moment.


  Georgios Karatzaferis (IND/DEM).(EL) Commissioner, you are considered to be a responsible and serious politician in our country. We have the following problem with the land registry: it cost 26 times more than planned. Less land, more money, including European Union money.

The question is straightforward. The issue is debated frequently in parliament and raised in the Greek press: do you intend to ask the Greek Government to prosecute those who took this money? Do you intend to ask that those who stole the money from the Greek people and the European Union go to court and submit their defence?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. I am planning to go to Greece on or around 20 October, when the Commission will certainly look into any potential irregularities, with the authorities. I have not been informed of any irregularities with regard to this project, but the matter will certainly be investigated, just to be on the safe side.


  President. Question No. 43 by Georgios Karatzaferis (H-0682/05)

Subject: Admission of failure by the Greek authorities in achieving the take-up targets for 2005

According to Greek press reports, there exists a document from the Ministry of Economic Affairs addressed to the relevant Commission directorate-general which states that the Greek authorities admit that for 2005 the take-up target will be missed by 1 billion euros in the best-case scenario so that the planned take-up of 5 billion euros will not be achieved.

Does such a document exist? If so, what else does it say, who has signed it and what explanation does it give for the failure (foreseen by the Greek authorities themselves) to achieve the target they had set?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. You ask whether we have received a letter from the Greek authorities containing the information to which you allude. I can tell you that the Commission has not received such a letter, but we have discussed the forecasts for payment with Greece, as we do with all the Member States several times a year.

In the context of our discussions with Greece on the forecast for payments in 2005 we noticed the potential risk of an absorption shortage by the end of the year. Both the Greek Government and the Commission are aware of that potential risk. That is why, back in July, the Director General of DG Regio, Mr Graham Meadows, wrote to the Greek Government concerning the N+2 payments and cohesion fund commitment targets for the year. After that letter was sent a meeting was held – around a week ago – between the Greek authorities and the Commission.

As I mentioned, I am planning my own visit and will discuss this issue when I meet representatives of the Greek Government in October.

It is my understanding, from the meetings the services have had, that there is a clear commitment not only on our part but also on that of Greece to do everything possible to avoid any decommitment this year, although such a risk does exist.


  Georgios Karatzaferis (IND/DEM).(EL) Madam President, we are talking about the loss of one-third of the third support package. This was also said by the Commissioner who was responsible several years ago and who is now in the Greek Parliament. There is a letter from the Minister of Economic Affairs to the prime minister of Greece in which there is talk of such an extensive loss.

Have you investigated why Greece is behind? Why can it not take up money, especially at a time when it has a 6% deficit and needs every last euro? Why does Greece find it so easy to reject several billion euros? What is the reason? Have you any information on the matter?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. We know that the Greeks need funds, as indeed do other Member States which use our funds, and as soon as I was informed there were problems with absorption capacity we worked very closely with the authorities to help as much as we could on the Commission side to solve the problem. Nevertheless, one should also take into account the fact that this year still has some months to run, so if there is full involvement – which I believe there is on the Greek side – we can try to avoid losing the funds within this year's allocation for Greece.

It is too premature to talk about concrete figures because my experience of the last one-and-a-half months of last year, when I took over at the end of November, was that the last months of the year usually see a huge mobilisation of funds in most of the Member States when they are able to catch up. That means there are still three months left to ensure an adequate absorption of funds in Greece.

All I can do is make the commitment that we will work hard with the authorities on this issue and on the basis of the figure I was presented with by the DG, my feeling is that the figure is well below the one mentioned in the question by the honourable Member. Nevertheless, at this stage I am reluctant to mention those figures because I believe that the Greek authorities and the Greeks who need the money will do their best to spend the money properly in the months to come.

As you know, for the structural funds the amount which might be at risk is the amount allocated in 2003 because now the N+2 comes automatically at the end of this year, and within the 2003 allocation we have not only ERDF, but also Social Fund and EAGGF funding. It is not for me to impose rapid action on the Greek authorities, but insofar as we can impose and mobilise we are doing so.

We are holding meetings at all levels and our missions are very often to Greece. Colleagues are working at a current operational level, but they are also very active in helping overcome any difficulties which have accumulated over years. Things like this do not happen overnight, but are usually the outcome of longer-term processes. We are trying to address the problems we have uncovered this year and help the Greeks.


  Paul Rübig (PPE-DE). – (DE) Madam President, Commissioner, is it not the case that the previous Greek Government amassed a huge debt potential, and that is why Greece now has problems fulfilling the Stability and Growth Pact?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. I cannot say so with 100% certainty, but my feeling is that it is not so much co-financing problems as the national contribution to the funds which makes it difficult for the Greek projects to be finalised properly. There have probably been a series of flaws, but I am not prepared today to give more information on the real reasons for the problems. As I said, these are usually whole processes, but we have certainly not identified any one single factor responsible for the lack of financial means to co-finance the projects.


  Dimitrios Papadimoulis (GUE/NGL).(EL) Thank you, Commissioner, for your reply and the spirit of your reply. Nonetheless, I should like to ask you: can you tell me, on the basis of requests for payment so far, what the total take-up rate is for the Greek Community Support Framework?

Similarly, you replied to me a few days ago in writing, saying that you were expecting Greek proposals on an interim review of the overall programme by the end of September. Have you received them?

Thirdly, following your trip to Greece, when do you estimate that the cooperation of the Commission with the Greek authorities on the review of the Community Support Framework will be completed?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. I am not sure whether I heard all the questions, but normally if we receive the project proposals by the end of October we should safely be able to allocate the funds towards the end of the year. Therefore, there is still some time to go, which is why I am saying that it is too early to judge today which – if any – funds would probably not be taken up, especially since it is always possible that there may be an excellent project that will consume the rest of the 2003 allocations before the end of this year.

Let me tell you that there is certainly no lack of willingness to cooperate with the Commission. As you may remember, in the first half of the year we managed to resolve an enormously difficult problem. We managed to find a solution, we managed to finalise negotiations that were extremely difficult and painful for both sides. However, the commitment on both sides was strong enough to resolve the problem, which was of a historical nature. Today we are working more on a current basis, but all the necessary efforts are being made on both sides and that makes me feel optimistic that we will resolve this problem. I cannot make any commitments on behalf of the Greek Government, however; I can only offer the help that we are offering.


  President. Question No. 44 by Ryszard Czarnecki (H-0710/05)

Subject: Funds for regional policy assistance

Is it true that, because of reductions in the budget originally planned for the period from 2007 to 2013, the Commission will be forced to cut back on the amounts initially intended for certain aid instruments? If so, which ones?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. (PL) There has been mention of the budget for 2007-13. As the honourable Member will be aware, this is the subject of an interinstitutional agreement and also the subject of negotiations between the three institutions on the basis of a proposal tabled by the Commission.

The Commission is involved in negotiations but nonetheless it defends its own proposal, if I may use that verb. The Commission has no power when it comes to deciding how a potential reduction of the total budget amount is to be distributed, and it cannot take decisions on how budget cuts are to be spread across the individual headings within the framework of cohesion policy. Each global cut of this nature leads to adjustments of components of the whole budget too.

I can, however, state that in June the Luxembourg Presidency proposed a budget for cohesion policy that was 10% less than the Commission’s proposal. The proposal envisaged a disproportionate impact on the individual objectives of cohesion policy. Objective I, involving the poorest regions, suffered a 6% cut. Objective II, intended to help create more competitive regions and provide new jobs, suffered a budget cut of about 18%. The most drastic cuts concerned Objective III, which relates to European territorial cooperation, that is, to cohesion. For Objective III the cuts amounted to 50%.

I am referring to a reduction in relation to the Commission’s proposal. In principle this would have a disproportionate impact on the so-called old and new Member States, as 80% of the cuts would affect the 15 older Member States and the remaining 20% would affect the countries that have recently acceded to the Union.

This is all I can say about the Commission’s involvement in decisions concerning budget cuts.


  Ryszard Czarnecki (NI). – (PL) I am taking the floor to prove that Greek Members are not the only ones to attempt to debate with the Commissioner. Thank you for your response, Commissioner Hübner. It was competent, detailed and to the point. In my question I tried to convey the concerns felt by many Members as to how regional policy will fare in the framework of the new budget.

I shall leave it at that, President, to prove to you that there are some male Members of this House who are capable of finishing on time so you do not need to resort to the ghastly device you have before you.


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. There was no further question there for me to respond to.


  David Martin (PSE). – Commissioner, will you look at the speech made yesterday by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in which he lauded various achievements over recent years in developing parts of the United Kingdom? The one thing common to all the examples he gave was that they had all been part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund. In that context, will you use that information in your negotiations with the Council to try to push up the amount of money available in the 2007-2013 financial perspective?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. Thank you for that information. In this context I should like to say two things. Firstly, the UK is a source of best practices in Europe when it comes to regional policy and the way funds are used. I have visited many science and business parks. You have wonderful partnerships at local level and achieve unbelievably good results, very often from a tiny catalytic contribution coming from the Structural Funds. Wherever you go – not only in Scotland, Wales or Cornwall, but also in other regions of the UK – you can find excellent examples of this type of best practice. We are also using the UK experience to help us to become more innovative in terms of financial engineering, and the British experience will also be widely used for the events which we will have with the British next month on financial engineering.

Secondly, we all need a decision on the budget, but it should be appreciated that in the meantime we can work together with the British on all other avenues – regulations, programming and also on those innovative proposals for initiatives for the future of the funds. However, it would be good to have the decision on the budget under the British Presidency.


  Justas Vincas Paleckis (PSE). – Commissioner, your colleague Commissioner Grybauskaitė stated publicly that if the EU fails to reach an agreement on the financial perspective this year during the British Presidency, then the new Member States of the EU would be unable to receive the full level of assistance from the structural and cohesion funds as planned. Do you agree with that prediction?


  Danuta Hübner, Member of the Commission. It is no secret that this policy needs time to be launched. We estimate that from the moment the decision on the budget is made we will need about 18 months to launch the new generation of cohesion programmes and projects. Looking at it from this point of view, now is really the last moment for the decision to be made on the budget, as we are already short of time. That is absolutely clear.

The problem is that once the decision is made and we complete all the other necessary procedures, then we have to negotiate the programmes – the national framework and the operational programmes – and then the Member States have to prepare themselves for the launch of the programmes and projects. If we start the projects in January 2007 – which is now quite unlikely – then there is less time to absorb the money, so the amount of money will just depend on the decision, whenever it is made. The decision will give the money, but how much time we will have to absorb the money is the worrying factor. If the perspective is shortened because of the delayed decision on the Financial Perspective, then the Member States and regions – old and new – will have less time and there is a risk that some money will be lost. It is in the case of this policy that the risk is highest.


  President. Questions Nos 45 and 46 will be answered in writing(1).


  President. Question No. 47 by Jacques Toubon (H-0701/05)

Subject: Study on gambling services in the internal market

In 2004, the Commission awarded a contract to the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law (ISDC) for a study on gambling services in the internal market.

The ISDC has sub-contracted out part of that study to a UK university – the Centre for the Study of Gambling (Manchester) – which apparently receives funding from bookmakers. There are also doubts over the independence of the ISDC itself, the financial viability of which depends on orders placed by those involved in the gambling sector. This economic connection would seem to constitute a de facto conflict of interest that could cast doubt on the validity of the report’s conclusions.

In view of the indisputable impact that the study will have on the rules governing the gambling sector in the future, what steps does the Commission intend to take to ensure that the study is objective, and what guarantees to that effect can it give to all those involved in the gambling sector in Europe?


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. I am satisfied that there is no conflict of interest in relation to the study that the Commission has commissioned. I am satisfied with the independence and integrity of the work of the contractor, the Swiss Institute, and the sub-contractor, the Centre for the Study of Gambling at Salford University.

The relationship with contributing companies to which the honourable Member refers is one that is common to university departments throughout the world. I am assured that donations from contributing companies, whether they be bookmakers or national lotteries, are unconditional donations. I am satisfied with the declaration of the absence of conflict of interest given to the Commission.

I can assure the honourable Member that my services will give the fullest attention to how this study is carried out and will ensure that the contractor fully meets the award criteria set out in the tender specifications.

The honourable Member refers to, and I quote, 'the indisputable impact that the study will have on the rules governing the gambling sector in the future'. Firstly I would like to remind the honourable Member that the study, which is looking at a wide variety of gambling services, will report factually on the various laws applicable in the Member States and on economic aspects. This is a fact-finding exercise and the contractor will not advise the Commission on its future policy options.

Finally, I can assure the honourable Member that I will not be taking any policy decisions purely on the basis of this study. The study will assist us all in gaining a better understanding of the issues involved, but it is my intention to consult fully before taking any decision.

The report of the contractor will be given to all interested parties and will be published on the Commission's website. In addition, the contractor's findings will be the subject of a public hearing, which is scheduled to take place in early November, at which the views of the interested parties, including the honourable Member, will be most welcome.


  Jacques Toubon (PPE-DE). – (FR) Commissioner, thank you for your very precise answer. I would simply like to stress that you have not denied the facts contained in my question and that it is precisely those facts that are particularly concerning. Even if the Swiss Institute for Comparative Law’s study is just a preliminary study on all systems, it is quite clear that contracting all the economic aspects to a university centre with companies such as Stanley Leisure, Gala Group, London Clubs International or the Camelot Group on its administrative board is nevertheless, in my opinion, far from being as objective as it should be.


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. I do not agree with the honourable Member. It is quite common for universities and centres of excellence to have funding from particular bodies. There is no conflict of interest when that particular university carries out a study. I do not accept that it is any different in this case. The contractor has given various assurances.

I would point out to the honourable Member that the Camelot Group, which runs the UK National Lottery, is also listed as a sponsor. So Salford is sponsored by both a private sector operator and an operator with a state monopoly.

Therefore I do not accept that they are in any way conflicting. This is going to be a factual study; it will help the Commission in its deliberations; it will be put on the website; there will be a hearing in November to which all interested parties will be invited, including the honourable Member. We will then reach our final decisions thereafter. This is a fact-finding exercise.


  David Martin (PSE). – Commissioner, I would like to thank you for the robustness of your response. I wonder if you would agree with me that the Centre for the Study of Gambling in Manchester is a reputable academic institution that takes no moral position on gambling, either for or against. It simply looks at the psychological roots of gambling and its economic and social impact, and does so in an independent and academic fashion.


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. On the basis of the information available to me I can agree with the honourable Member and, until it is proved otherwise, this particular institute has the highest reputation.


  President. Question No. 48 by Jelko Kacin (H-0725/05)

Subject: Difficulties experienced by gaming operators in advertising their activities in certain EU Member States

In July I tabled a question to the Commission concerning the difficulties experienced by Slovenian gaming operators in advertising their activities in Austria. In its reply, the Commission stated that it would examine the Austrian law (amended in 2003) which bans foreign gaming operators from advertising in Austria, and would establish whether or not it is compatible with Community legislation.

What has the Commission ascertained in the three months since I tabled that initial question?

May I remind the Commission that while Austria prohibits and prevents foreign gaming operators from advertising their business in Austria, no such ban applies to national operators. Austria is clearly protecting the economic interests of national providers and obstructing foreign tourism operators in the single European market. This is a breach of the fundamental principles of a free market, and in particular of Article 49 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, which concerns the freedom to provide services.

What does the Commission intend to do in this area to end such discrimination before Austria’s EU presidency begins on 1 January 2006?


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. In my previous reply to the honourable Member, I stated that the Commission is prepared to examine the legislation in question on the basis of more specific information.

While the Commission has not received specific complaints regarding the Austrian legislation, I would remind the honourable Member of the study which has been commissioned to report on all the national rules applicable to the various forms of gambling services. This study is due to be completed by the end of this year and I expect it to include a legal and economic review to help us all better understand the complex issues involved and to inform us of the laws applicable in the Member States, including Austria.

I repeat my invitation to the honourable Member to provide us with more details or practical examples of the problems Slovenian gaming operators have experienced in advertising their activities. Such information would assist the Commission in establishing whether infringement proceedings should be opened.


  Jelko Kacin (ALDE). – (SL) Thank you, Commissioner, for your comprehensive answer. We will be only too happy to provide you with concrete examples of discrimination whereby certain Austrian companies are refusing to run advertising for gaming establishments in the territory of the Republic of Slovenia, since they are forbidden from doing so by their national legislation. Material evidence of this exists, and we will notify you of all such evidence as soon as possible. Thank you for your cooperation.


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. I thank the honourable Member for what he is going to do. I invite him to contact the Commission so that a meeting can be set up with him. Perhaps the matter could be further pursued then. That would be one way of proceeding.


  President. Question No. 49 by Mairead McGuinness (H-0715/05)

Subject: Protection of consumers with regard to cross-border financial transactions

Will the European Commission address the issue of the lack of consumer protection in the insurance/pension area? The difficulties faced by thousands of EU citizens who invested in Equitable Life, only to find their pension greatly reduced, is a clear example of a failure of the EU to protect its citizens.

With moves to open up banking across borders, how does the European Commission intend to protect its citizens/consumers, given the experience with Equitable Life?

And where problems arise, who will pay compensation to injured parties? This is particularly important in light of efforts to reach agreement on and subsequently implement the proposed Services Directive (2004/0001 (COD)), where there are concerns about the country-of-origin principle and consumer protection.


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. The Commission has the greatest sympathy for the many thousands of policy-holders and pensioners who have suffered severe financial loss as a result of the serious problems encountered by the Equitable Life insurance company.

The Commission has no direct role in the supervision of individual insurance undertakings. That is the responsibility of each Member State and is, in practice, carried out by the supervisory authorities appointed for that purpose.

The United Kingdom Financial Services Authority, recognising certain weaknesses in the former regime and responding to criticisms in the Penrose report, has launched a major reform of the regulation of life insurance undertakings. In part this reflects the lessons learned from the Equitable Life affair.

As regards the payment of compensation where national supervision has failed, redress can only be sought before the national courts of the Member State in question. With respect to the Community regime for the insurance and pension sector, the Commission is currently working on the Solvency II project, the aim of which is to achieve over time a more harmonised risk-based system for the supervision and prudential regulation of all insurance undertakings across the European Union.

The Commission is also continuing its exploratory work with the Member States on insurance guarantee schemes that could deal with situations where an insurance undertaking fails and is unable to meet its commitments to policy-holders and beneficiaries. It should be noted, however, that Equitable Life did not enter into liquidation and continues to operate as an authorised insurance undertaking, albeit one that is closed to new business.

As far as the banking sector is concerned, the Deposit Guarantee Schemes Directive already obliges Member States to set up schemes which offer a minimum guarantee level of EUR 20 000 to depositors, although the threshold is higher in a number of Member States. The Deposit Guarantee Schemes Directive is in the process of being reviewed in order to ensure that it is still in line with market developments.

Concerning the proposal for a directive on services in the internal market, the Commission would like to recall that financial services are excluded from the scope of application of the services proposal. Furthermore, it should be noted that the services proposal includes provisions strengthening consumer protection. In particular, Article 27 requires Member States to ensure that providers whose services present a direct and particular risk to the health and safety of the recipient or a third person, or to the financial security of the recipient, would be obliged to take out professional indemnity insurance.


  Gay Mitchell (PPE-DE), deputising for the author. More than one million Europeans, including over 15 000 non-UK residents and many vulnerable pensioners suffered real losses totalling EUR 5 billion to their prudently built-up retirement savings in 2001, allegedly due to what has been termed 'serial UK regulatory failure' and not due to falls in the stock market.

The Commission has claimed that it is unnecessary for it to investigate the UK's national implementation since it finds that the UK is compliant today. This does nothing to redress the issue. Will the Commissioner investigate the case thoroughly with a view to instigating Court of Justice proceedings against the UK in this case?


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. There is long-established European Court of Justice jurisprudence in this area. The situation is as I outlined previously in response to a question regarding another insurance undertaking in the United Kingdom.

The Commission is not in a position to pursue the matter in the way that the honourable Member and other Members of the House would like it to, because it is not the way the Commission can do things. The European Court of Justice only finds in relation to the way a directive has been transposed and the situation as it is at the present time. It is for policy-holders who have been affected by any change to pursue those issues through their own national courts. I have given this reply in response to previous questions in this generally related area and that remains the position.


  Gay Mitchell (PPE-DE). – I thank you for your reply, Commissioner, but can you tell me how one is meant to have confidence in the single market if Equitable Life can get away with treating ordinary people in this way? This was not due to a fall in the stock market but to serial failure in regulation. That is the allegation that has been made. How can people across Europe be asked to take a single market seriously if the Commission washes its hands in this way?


  Charlie McCreevy, Member of the Commission. Irrespective of where my sympathies might lie in this area, the role of the Commission is to ensure that the United Kingdom is currently in conformity with the relevant EU legislation. The Commission cannot make any pronouncement on the content and application of the former regulation regime which has been replaced.

The Commission has consistently acted in full conformity with the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice on the role and purpose of infringement proceedings. The objective of such proceedings under EU law is to establish or restore the compatibility of existing national law with EU law, and not to rule on the possible past incompatibility of a national law, which has since been amended or replaced. That is the established jurisprudence on those issues and remains the situation.


  President. Since we are behind schedule, I shall have to stop the discussion of this topic here, and so Questions Nos 50 to 53 will be answered in writing(2).


  President. Question No. 54 by Bernd Posselt (H-0670/05)

Subject: Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92 on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin – Karlsbader Oblaten (Karlsbad Wafers)

Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92(3) provides for the protection of foodstuffs the quality of which is attributable to their specific geographical origin. The Czech Republic is seeking to have such protection of designation of origin applied to the product known as 'Karlovarske oplatky' (Karlsbader Oblaten – Karlsbad Wafers).

Karlsbad Wafers have been produced for some 200 years now on the basis of old family recipes, and they gained their worldwide reputation during the Golden Age of the Bohemian spa resort of Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary). Until 1945, they were principally produced in what was known as the 'Spa Triangle' (Karlsbad – Marienbad – Franzensbad) – the majority of the inhabitants of which were German – and in Austria as well.

After the end of the Second World War, large numbers of the German-speaking population were expelled from Czechoslovakia, and many of the old-established bakers from Karlsbad and other parts of the Spa Triangle moved to other countries, including Germany and Austria, and used their know-how to start up production of Karlsbad Wafers in their new homelands.

Is the Commission aware of this situation, and how will it take it into account when it assesses the Czech application for protection of designation of origin?


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. The Commission can confirm to the honourable Member that it has received an application from the Czech Republic to register 'Karlovarske oplatky' as a protected destination of origin according to Council Regulation (EC) No 2081/92. This application is under examination by the Commission under the terms of the regulation. At this stage the Commission cannot take into account any information or material from third parties that is not contained in the application itself.

If the Commission concludes that the application meets the requirements for registration, the name and a summary of the specification will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union.

This allows any party with a legitimate interest to lodge an objection to the registration with their Member State. Any Member State may object to the registration within six months of publication, following which the Commission will invite the authorities of the Member States concerned to discuss the issue and seek agreement on the dossier. However, if the Commission concludes in its initial examination that the application does not meet the terms of the regulation, it will take a formal decision not to publish the application.

Therefore, the strict answer to the honourable Member's question is that at the initial stage the Commission will only take into account matters contained in the application.

However, if the Commission decides to publish the application there will be an opportunity for the producers referred to by the honourable Member to object to the registration.


  Bernd Posselt (PPE-DE). – (DE) Commissioner, I do think that the Commission should also consider information from Parliament. Karlsbad Wafers were produced and sold in Karlsbad and Marienbad. They were invented at the Tepl monastery. They were being produced and sold worldwide back in the 19th and 20th centuries, and nowadays the best Karlsbad Wafers in the world are produced in Dillingen an der Donau by a company called Wetzel. Take a look at me; you can tell that I know a thing or two about food, and I can confirm that they are the best Karlsbad Wafers. I would therefore implore you to examine whether it is really possible to narrow down geographically a designation that is so international and European in nature. Our European culture would be poorer as a result.


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. In the circumstances I had expected to be able to sample these extremely delicious waffles, but that might be for another occasion.

I can only repeat that if the Commission decides to publish the application, there is a possibility for the different Member States to go into the matter within a fixed period. If that should be the outcome, then you have that possibility. I am quite sure that this will be followed up later on.


  President. – I can provide confirmation from across the group divide that those wafers are indeed very good. Perhaps Mr Posselt should bring one along for the Commissioner.


  President. Question No. 55 by Agnes Schierhuber (H-0687/05)

Subject: Protected geographical indication status for 'Olmützer Quargel' under Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92

By letter of 19 October 2004, the Czech Republic applied for European designation protection to be granted for the product 'pravé olomoucke tvarůžky' ('genuine Olmützer Quargel') under Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92(4) ('designations of origin' regulation). Olmützer Quargel is an acid curd cheese which originated in Austrian Moravia (cf. 'Handbuch der Käse', Dr Heinrich Mair-Waldburg (ed.)) and has been produced in Austria since about the end of the 19th century. In Germany too, for instance, Olmützer Quargel has been produced, and marketed under that designation, since at least 1945, however. As a result of the geopolitical changes after World War II, a large number of German-speaking cheesemakers emigrated from Czechoslovakia, as it then was, to Austria, further expanding production of 'Olmützer Quargel' there on the basis of the know-how they brought with them. Designation protection for the product made in the Czech Republic would make it impossible to continue marketing the Olmützer Quargel traditionally made in Austria. What scope does the Commission think there is for taking that into account as part of the protection arrangements under Regulation (EEC) No 2081/92?


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. The Commission can confirm to the honourable Member that it has received an application from the Czech Republic to register 'pravé olomoucke tvarůžky' as a protected geographical indication. As for what to do, whether the Commission takes a decision to follow up these ideas, or whether to just leave it as it is, the explanation is exactly the same, and to save time at this late stage I would simply suggest that there is a possibility to come back to this.


  Agnes Schierhuber (PPE-DE). – (DE) Madam President, the Commissioner herself has said that the application by the Czech Republic concerns ‘genuine Olmützer Quargel’. In my opinion, this is accurate. This would also make it clear – particularly as ‘Olmützer Quargel’ is produced in other Member States, too, of course – that this is simply a generic designation. This would not pose any problems from the point of view of Austria or Germany, the countries in which these producers from the former Czechoslovakia have settled, as the relevant distinction would be rendered by the term ‘genuine’ Olmützer Quargel.


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. I am quite aware of the reasons why this is produced outside the original triangle, but I can only recommend that you try to use the possibilities available in the legislation if this should not turn out as you wish it to in the end.


  President. Question No. 56 by Zbigniew Krzysztof Kuźmiuk (H-0681/05)

Subject: The soft fruit market in Poland

On 11 May 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the simplification of the common market organisation in fruit and vegetables, in which it urges the Commission to strengthen support for producer organisations and introduce import quotas for the soft fruit market. This came after MEPs had repeatedly addressed the matter within the Committee on Agriculture and in letters to Commissioner Fischer Boel. Unfortunately, there has as yet been no firm response from the Commission with regard to soft fruits. In Poland, the situation in this market has been disastrous in 2005. The buying-in price of strawberries, raspberries and currants has been considerably lower than production costs for the second year running. Does the Commission intend to apply the solutions suggested by Parliament in its resolution of 11 May in time for the 2006 harvest?


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. The Commission is aware that the Polish soft fruit sector has had major problems in the last two years, owing to the low prices of several of the products in question.

Following the Presidency's conclusions concerning the simplification of the common organisation of the market for fruit and vegetables in November 2004, the Commission started several months ago to carry out an analysis of the Community market for soft fruit intended for processing, with a view to making appropriate proposals to address the specific problems.

As part of those investigations, missions were organised to several Member States. In Poland, these took place in April and July. The work will be completed by the end of the year and will be published by the Commission at the beginning of 2006. Obviously, it will be necessary to await the conclusions of this work before starting discussions on any possible measures.

In addition, at Poland's request, the Commission has initiated a safeguard investigation concerning the import of frozen strawberries. The investigation is ongoing and no conclusion has been drawn at this stage.


  Zbigniew Krzysztof Kuźmiuk (PPE-DE). – (PL) Commissioner, I should like to begin by thanking the Commission and you personally for taking such an interest in this problem, which is a very serious one for Poland. My main concern is the length of the decision-making process. We first drew attention to this problem back in 2004. Unfortunately, another year has gone by and things got worse rather than better in 2005.

I have a question for you, Commissioner. Will it be possible to resolve this problem before the start of the 2006 harvest?


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. Work on the report started back in April 2005 and since then investigations have been carried out in the major countries concerned: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and the United Kingdom. Two missions to Poland were undertaken during the harvest period. The report is being prepared on the basis of the information collected during these missions, together with statistical data. It will cover in detail the four major European sub-sectors: strawberries, blackcurrants, raspberries and cherries for processing.

Possible measures will be included in the Commission communication on the proposal for reform of the fruit and vegetable sector, scheduled to be discussed in the second part of 2006.


  President. Question No. 57 by Johan Van Hecke (H-0690/05)

Subject: Payment of European farm subsidies to large land-owners belonging to the aristocracy

According to recent reports, a substantial proportion of European farm subsidies is paid not to small farmers but to wealthy large land-owners, mostly of aristocratic origin. While hundreds of farmers have been receiving an average of less than € 100 in European subsidies, the landed gentry and food companies have made millions at the expense of the European tax-payer.

A few examples: the sugar company Tate & Lyle – € 170 m; the Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Cees Veerman – € 400 m; Prince Charles of the UK – € 340 000; the British Parker family – € 1.5 m; the British Baron Rothschild – € 500 000; the Irish land-owner Larry Goodman – € 508 000.

Is the Commission aware of this? How does it explain this improper use of European farm subsidies?


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. Thank you, because it is very nice to know where the question is coming from.

The Commission forwarded to the European Parliament indicative information on the breakdown of CAP direct payments by Member State, the size of payments, and types of farms in 2000 and 2001. It can be seen from those data that there are great disparities in the size of payments for farmers in many of our Member States. Since aid applications are made by the farmer, defined as a person whose holding is situated within Community territory and who exercises an agricultural activity, the Commission does not receive data concerning land ownership or the aristocratic status of the beneficiary. In any case, since it is bound to ensure the confidentiality of these individual data, the Commission is not in a position to make available or to publish the names of beneficiaries of aid from the EAGGF Guarantee Section.

The reason for the variation in distribution of the direct payments is connected with historical production. Since the 1992 CAP reform, the original price support policy has been replaced by a policy aiming at greater competitiveness. The shifts in policy have been achieved by the gradual reduction of the EU support prices and compensation for farmers for the consequent revenue loss in the form of direct payments. Owing to the fact that those direct payments were first introduced by coupling them mainly to production factors through per hectare payments and reference yields in the arable sector, and to headage in the livestock sector, those farmers with larger farms or greater livestock numbers received more compensation in the form of direct payments. During the debates held on all the different changes to the CAP in the 1992 reform and Agenda 2000, and again in the discussions on CAP reform in 2003, the Commission actually proposed a so-called capping of the direct payments to farmers and, as far as I remember, the latest discussions on this issue back in 2003 proposed a cap of EUR 300 000 for each beneficiary. At the end of the day, however, the Council and the Member States rejected this proposal and it is therefore not part of the current CAP reform.


  Johan Van Hecke (ALDE). – (NL) I would like to thank the Commissioner for her response. I understand very well that the Commission cannot make data available concerning beneficiaries, but I think it is still important, in the interest of all of us, that we should insist on that information being publicised. It will make policy so much more transparent and make the common agricultural policy so much easier to defend.

Secondly, I would like to say to the Commissioner that, following in the UK’s footsteps, the Netherlands has now also publicised the data. These data confirm that most of the European agricultural subsidies end up where they should not, namely in the hands of large industrial companies such as Nestlé and Heineken. How much longer can the Commission tolerate this?


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. When the figures are published, both the direct payment to the farmer and the export refunds to big companies are of course part of these figures. You are quite right that it is not in my hands to publish these figures, because they are not the Commission's figures. That is the reason.

Of course I have noticed that certain Member States have decided to publish these figures, among others the countries you named and the country I know best. We are preparing our website, the DG Agriculture website, to provide a link to the different Member States. That is the only way that we can put 'soft' pressure on the Member States to publish these figures.


  Bart Staes (Verts/ALE). – (NL) Commissioner, I have to say that I find your answer utterly unsatisfactory. For the period between 2005 and 2009, the Commission made transparency into one of its strategic objectives. Commissioner Kallas stated very clearly in two speeches, one in Nottingham and one in Berlin, that money that is allocated via agriculture, among others, is the taxpayers’ money and that citizens ought to know where it ends up.

Mr Kallas states quite explicitly that Member States must make information concerning beneficiaries of European funds available to the public, so I see a contradiction between your statement here and what was said by your fellow-Commissioner Mr Kallas. I would like to know, Commissioner, whether you will help ensure that Member States are required to make information of this kind available to the public, in accordance with Mr Kallas’ intention.


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. I have always been in favour of transparency. That is why we have been looking into ways of how to make Member States publish these figures. At present I am not in a position to do that, but I am working in close cooperation with my colleague, Commissioner Kallas, to see what can be done. Naturally, we cannot break the rules or breach legislation. That would cause huge problems. But we are looking into this matter and we are trying, via the link to our website, to show everyone that we want to see the Member States publish these figures.


  Agnes Schierhuber (PPE-DE). – (DE) Madam President, Commissioner, does it not more closely reflect reality to say that there are both large and small farms, which developed by tradition? Is it not the case that these large farms are the same rural businesses that employ a very large workforce? I should just like to point out that agriculture in my home Member State is structured on a small scale, yet, back in 1999, Austria was in favour of this modulation, this phasing-in schedule. Unfortunately, it did not win through, however, as first Germany and then the United Kingdom opposed it.


  Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the Commission. When we last had discussions on trying to find a compromise political agreement on the CAP reform in 2003, there were various discussions on how to target the payments to different types. Two ideas were put forward. One of them was accepted by the Council and that was the idea of taking all the smaller farms out of the system – those receiving less than EUR 5 000 with this franchise. They do not contribute to the modulation. When we have to reduce a direct payment to the farmers afterwards because we hit the ceiling of the Brussels Agreement, these smaller enterprises will not be hit.

We have taken into consideration the possibility of not targeting the smaller farms when we talk about reducing the direct payment.


  President. Questions Nos 58 to 96 will be answered in writing(5).


  Jim Higgins (PPE-DE). – Madam President, on a point of order, did you expend the full 20 minutes on oral questions to Commissioner Fischer Boel?


  President. Yes, we did. We have already overrun by several minutes, and I should like to give our interpreters, too, the chance to have a break. That is why I announced a short while ago that we were unable to continue dealing with a question. I had hoped that you had heard me.

That concludes Question Time.


(1) For questions not taken see Annex: ‘Question Time’.
(2) For questions not taken see Annex: ‘Question Time’.
(3) OJ L 208, 24.7.1992, p. 1.
(4) OJ L 208, 24.7.1992, p. 1
(5) For questions not taken see Annex: ‘Question Time’.

Aviz juridic - Politica de confidențialitate