The 411 on the 141

The biggest European Union related story of the week was, naturally enough... agricultural subsidies. Something or other happened with some minor treaty, but that was inconsequential compared to the government's struggle to defend the so-called 141 subsidies, named after the 141st article of Finland's EU membership treaty (fi), that are paid out of Finnish taxpayers' pockets to the farmers of southern Finland.

Because such subsidies distort intra-EU competition - which makes them a form of protectionism - Finland needs the EU's permission to keep paying them. It obtained a temporary permission when it entered the Union. That was 15 years ago and now the EU Commission is starting to wonder just how long will the farmers of southern Finland remain temporarily hampered by EU membership. Last year close to 100 million euros was paid out. The Commission wants to either eliminate the subsidies completely or at least reduce them significantly, e.g. by 20 percent.

The Centre Party is, as you would expect, going slightly nuts over the issue. Several senior Centrists, most notably ex-Prime Minister Esko Aho and parliamentary Agriculture and Forestry Committee chair Jari Leppä, have suggested that the issue be tied to the ratification of the not-a-constitution in order to show the EU that Finland means business. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen is opposed and the odds of this happening are slight, but it speaks of the central importance of agricultural subsidies to Centrists.

In the press our Nordic neighbors Sweden and Denmark have been singled out as opponents of the 141 subsidies and Leppä wrote a letter (fi) to the Swedish parliament. In it he mentioned all sorts of reasons for why agriculture in Finland is dependent on subsidies, none of which seems to have anything to do with Finnish EU membership. He even brought up the war. Lest we forget, the stated rationale for the 141 subsidies was easing serious difficulties caused by joining the EU.

By contrast, the so-called 142 subsidies, which are paid out to farmers in northern Finland and account for well over half of all national agricultural subsidies, are pretty much permanent. If the 141 is done away with, will farming in Finland be concentrated in the north of the country? That would be a rather perverse outcome.

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