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German court: Farmsubsidies have to be in the open

Information about farmsubsidies have to be made public also in Germany, a German court decided this week. Three court cases were negotiated at the Administrative Court of North-Rhine-Westphalia in Münster, all three concern farmsubsidy disclosure, two of them on federal level.

According to the court there is a general right to access to this information according to thelaw on right to environmental information. Farmsubsidies indirectly affect the nature and the environment, and thus are subject to the stronger law on right to environmental information. The law amongst other things forces the authority to particularly weigh the interest of the public against other interests such as data protection concerns.

Following the court decision information about all legal persons has to be released within the timeframe of the law on right to environmental information. Also subsidy information for private persons is – in principle – included. However when it comes to private persons the authorities have to weigh the public interest against the data protection interest of the individual subsidy recipient, and the beneficiary has to be heard.
The question of business or trade secrets is void, since the publication of an annual subsidy will not reveal exclusive internal knowledge, the court decided.
A final version of the decision is expected in the coming weeks. Read the press release by the Münster Oberverwaltungsgericht.

One of the three cases of the Münster court – and the first of its kind in Germany – had already in 2007 reached the breakthrough of getting access to data of all legal persons receiving more than € 50.000 per year. These facts were basis for articles in German magazine Stern published late 2007. 
The three German court cases have to be seen in a larger context. The struggle for the disclosure has been ongoing through freedom of information requests since 2002, in 2008 and 2009 an EU regulation forced EU member states to disclose names and subsidies for all recipients on websites.
However in November 2010 German farmers won a court case before the European Court of Justice, which resulted in all data being withdrawn from the national ministries’ public sites with the argument of data protection.
As of April 30th 2011 all legal persons have to be published online again, if EU member states do not reach the date, they face a legal procedure for breach of EU law. Member states’ agencies are currently trying to control the data and distinguish legal and natural persons before publication.
Sweden, Finland and Denmark have chosen to grant access to all data upon freedom of information requests. The data are also held centrally by the European Commission in Brussels, but in a request dating back to 2004 the Commission rejected access to the information.

Brigitte Alfter


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