North's bid to avoid Euro farming fines to go to court

The North’s bid to avoid more than £100m (€117.5m) in European fines is to be taken to Europe’s highest court.

The North’s bid to avoid more than £100m (€117.5m) in European fines is to be taken to Europe’s highest court.

The European Court of Justice at Luxembourg will be asked to rule on the Department of Agriculture case against Brussels’ withholding of official funds.

The dispute surrounds inaccuracies in maps which farmers use to collect subsidies from the European Commission and which can lead to massive amounts of over-payment.

An area like a forest or other ineligible land can be inadvertently claimed for because of the errors.

Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew said: “I have significant concerns that the Commission is being heavy-handed and is over-estimating the risk to public funds.

“I know that I am not alone in that concern among member states.”

The case would be one of the first of its kind and involves maps drawn up from 2004 for the Single Farm Payment.

It primarily surrounds an administrative problem as there is little evidence of serious fraud by farmers, who were supposed to check the department’s maps and point out any errors.

Around £64m (€75.2m) has been disallowed by Europe so far because of the inaccuracies and the department wants to set aside a further £40m (€47m) to cover the years from 2011-2015. If the court case succeeds, the department wants to see the money refunded.

More than €4bn has been disallowed across the EU.

Ms Gildernew told the Assembly: “I can confirm that the department is taking the necessary steps today to take a case to the European Court of Justice and that it has the support of the Executive in this matter.”

Officials also want to ensure greater compliance with the Commission’s requirements.

Every field within the department’s mapping system is to be reviewed – almost 750,000 plots of land. A total of 60 planners have been redeployed to help do the work.

The minister added: “Farmers have to understand that the correctness of the farm map and the careful maintenance of eligible areas are at the core of their business in the way that counting cattle or sheep was central before 2005.

“Whilst the department supplies maps, it is the responsibility of farm businesses to ensure they are correct.”

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