BRUSSELS — European Union lawmakers on Tuesday strongly criticized corruption and self-dealing in the bloc’s $65-billion-a-year farm subsidy program but were sharply divided over how or whether to reform a system that has become a third rail of European politics.

At a time of festering anti-European sentiment, the debate over one of the world’s largest subsidy programs highlighted a fissure that cuts far deeper than a simple dispute over farm policy. It raised the question of how to combat political corruption without infringing on the independence of the bloc’s 28 nations — and further emboldening its far-right populist critics.

Tuesday’s debate happened during a European Parliament budget oversight hearing, which was prompted, in part, by a New York Times investigation into the farm subsidy program, known as the Common Agricultural Policy or C.A.P. In November, the Times revealed how subsidies help underwrite oligarchs, enrich politicians and encourage land-grabbing and Mafia-style tactics.

“The recent New York Times report on the abuse of C.A.P. subsidies is damning and undermines trust in government,” said Mick Wallace, a European lawmaker from Ireland.

The Times tracked state land sales and subsidies that benefited friends and family members of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, while also identifying at least $79 million in government subsidies paid to companies owned by the Andrej Babis, prime minister of the Czech Republic.

“It quite ironic to see populists such as Andrej Babis and Viktor Orban making such hue and cry about how European Union money is spent, while the same two people use E.U. money to enrich their friends,” said Lara Wolters, a lawmaker from the Netherlands and member of the budget oversight committee.

In the hearing, Ms. Wolters argued that Parliament should reconsider the core premise of the subsidy program — that farmers are paid based on how much land they control.

Such a change would curb the ability of national leaders to use farmland as political chits. And it could reduce the incentives for large, politically powerful companies to acquire more land. But it would also amount to a seismic overhaul of a fund regarded as sacrosanct by many national politicians and many farmers.

European lawmakers are now debating the renewal of the bloc’s next seven-year farm bill. National leaders want more discretion on how to spend the money, and farmers want fewer administrative requirements. In Brussels, there is little appetite for a major reform that would impose greater oversight on governments — even those that have manipulated or abused the system.

So the latest proposal, which will be debated in the coming months, gives national leaders like Mr. Babis and Mr. Orban even greater power to set farm policy and oversee spending, despite allegations of corruption. Internal auditors have criticized that proposal, and several lawmakers objected Tuesday.

“We can’t even adequately police corruption,” said Sheila Ritchie of Scotland. “What on Earth makes us think self-policing compliance is going to work?”

Johannes Hahn, the European budget administrator, defended the bloc’s approach to corruption and abuse, noting that European auditors have investigated and audited Mr. Babis.

“We have reacted very quickly,” he said.

But the Babis investigations also reveal how accountability is still limited. Years ago, European investigators recommended that Mr. Babis be charged with fraud, but they lack jurisdiction or authority to bring charges. The case has languished in the Czech Republic. And the audit is expected to drag on for many months, during which time Mr. Babis can still vote on the European budget.

The European Union is not a government but an economic and political bloc. While it has a system of shared laws, the union is built on the concept of national sovereignty.

Those tensions bubbled over on Tuesday, as some lawmakers strongly rejected suggestions that cracking down on corruption required the European Union to take on new oversight.

“Some colleagues want the E.U. to have even greater responsibilities and to supervise member states even more,” Tomislav Sokol, a Croatian lawmaker, said during the hearing, held in Strasbourg, France. “But member states should look after their own interests. Solutions should not be imposed by the European Union.”

The clearest divisions, though, were between lawmakers calling for a significant overhaul of the subsidy program and those who argued for keeping it intact.

“The story here isn’t actually about a few bad apples robbing funds,” said Clare Daly, an Irish lawmaker. “The problem is actually the system itself.”

Such sentiments elicited a rebuke from Clara Aguilera of Spain, who is also a member of the agricultural committee.

“There are people who are trying to make these problems into a general condemnation of the C.A.P.,” she said. “I refuse to join in this blanket condemnation.”

Source link