EU: ALL IF FAIR IN THE FIGHT FOR FUNDS. - Arm-twisting and acrimony accompany the share-out of Euro-rewards.

by Peter Wilsher.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Arm-twisting and acrimony accompany the share-out of Euro-rewards.

In the US it is called 'pork barreling'. Whatever other high political aims they may be engaged in promoting, senators and congressmen all recognise that they must spend a large part of their time making sure that a fair - and preferably rather more than a fair - share of federally-funded activity flows to whatever state or district they happen to represent. It is the opposite of Nimbyism - everybody seeks to fructify their own backyard.

In Europe, the process works rather differently. While the Parliament in Strasbourg remains in its present rather embryonic state, the votes of its individual members do not have quite the same direct trading value as their Washington opposite numbers. But exactly the same 'national interest' pressures are there, hidden away in the fine-tuning of the Commission's agenda and the opaque manoeuvres preceding each decision that emerges from the Council of Ministers.

This summer, there are at least two such epic struggles going on behind the overtly tranquil Brussels facade. Both throw interesting light on the kind of forces whose interplay tends to determine the share-out of Euro-rewards.

The first goodie-bag goes under the name of the Trans European Networks plan. Though hardly the subject of daily conversation in Hull and Halesowen, it is Brussels's biggest single project since the officially recognised 'completion' of the single market and so far the only clear initiative to have come out of the Commission's White Paper on growth and jobs that was agreed last December. It embraces roads, railways, telecommunication links and the transmission and distribution of energy. The figure for the total ultimate bill has been pencilled in at 400 billion ecus - something over £300 billion. Naturally the plans have been drawn up so that every member country has at least some interest in their going ahead. But Britain's involvement is fairly peripheral. Apart from a contribution to the cost of the hoped-for London-Paris-Brussels-Amsterdam high-speed rail service it revolves mainly round another railway, in this case linking Cork and Dublin directly with Belfast, Larne and Stranraer.

The real meat, though, is to be found much further east. The biggest planned investments are all focused on improving transport and communications, either with the ex-Soviet Union and its former satellite empire, or with Turkey and beyond it, the Middle East. The overarching idea is to repair the legacy of the Cold War years, when Europe's infrastructural improvement was almost entirely concentrated on North-South connections. As a result, in the laconic words of Henning Christopherson, the EU economics commissioner, 'It is now very difficult in purely physical terms to bring goods quickly between East and West.' Repairing that situation is clearly a most sensible aim, if the ideal of a wider Europe is ever to be fully realised. But the politicians and voters concerned are already fighting like cats about where all this development money, and the jobs it will create, are going to go. As the people of Kent know, it can make an enormous difference whether a major trunk route goes north, south or through a particular city or mountain pass, and in many cases, the precise siting of the Euro-network will determine, for generations to come, whether whole regions enjoy prosperity or penury. So Greece has been pushing hard for the £2 billion Egnatia road scheme, which could halve the driving time between the Adriatic and Aegean, while its more northerly neighbours favour, say, the proposed Moscow-Berlin express line, or the Prague-Dresden-Nuremberg motorways, and Spain fumes because it has been allocated barely a quarter as many ecus as Germany. The first bids were discussed at a summit last month, but expect the show to run and run.

Meanwhile, there is the great debate about airline subsidies. Since early 1993 Europe's air travel providers have been free to set their own ticket prices and from 1997 will be freed from all the traditionally hampering regulations which lay down where they can and cannot fly. Independent operators, like privatised BA and Scandinavia's SAS (50%-owned by Sweden, Denmark and Norway) argue that this should mean an end to all the hefty subventions which have always been available, openly or covertly, to keep their state-owned rivals in the air. But now they see Brussels being strong-armed by member governments to allow bigger payments than ever before.

Portugal's TAP (which has used its public sector hand-outs to undercut everyone else by 19% on the Copenhagen-New York route) is now holding its hand out for over £700 million. Greece is seeking permission to inject virtually £1 billion into its loss-making flag-carrier, Olympic. And Paris, with the personal intervention of its prime minister, Edouard Balladur, wants to give Air France a cool £2.3 billion.

Needless to say, everyone is apoplectic about this, and is making every effort to prevent such a blatant tilting of the playing field. But that, of course, is what pork-barreling is all about.

Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

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