Detached MEP Richard Corbett has found “unusual entertainment values” in a Lords report on the future of the EU’s regional policy (also known as the structural funds), for which we provided written and oral evidence. Richard is very excited about the peers’ examination of our evidence on the high admin cost of the policy and about the Committee’s conclusion that the funds are "effective and, in general, fit for purpose".
We sort of suspected that the Lords Committee wouldn't agree with us, given its fondness of everything coming from Brussels. A figure like Lord Kerr – one of the patriarchs behind the EU Constitution/Lisbon treaty – is not exactly our greatest fan.
But it’s still slightly surprising, since highlighting the heavy administrative burden of the EU’s structural funds is not particularly controversial. On the contrary, the Committee’s conclusion that the admin cost is “overstated” will surprise many. Such as Richard Corbett’s Labour Party colleague Alan Johnson who had this to say when he was in charge of the brief:
“Devolving the delivery of regional policy in support of common objectives to Member States would entail less red tape and bureaucracy…We believe that actually we could introduce huge cuts in bureaucracy and rid ourselves of the frustration of dealing with that process by having a properly structured, debated and set out method, whereby, richer European Union countries did not go through that wasted process.”
A number of mainstream reports in the UK and elsewhere echo this very point. See here, here, here, here, here, for instance. The bureaucratic burden is no doubt part of the reason why other member states, such as Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark, want to bring back regional policy in the EU-15 to where it belongs – close to the people who are actually affected by it (subsidiarity, remember?).
That is also the reason we challenged the Lords Committee to come up with its own figure. Such a figure, we might add, should include the cost for the public sector - the EU institutions, the seven (!) Whitehall departments involved in the funds, the RDAs, the local Government Offices, etc. But also the admin and compliance cost for the recipients of the funds, similar to what has been done for the cost of the CAP to British farmers.
Given the widely documented concerns over these costs, it is puzzling that the Lords Committee brushes them aside without offering any aggregated data to support their own claim – particularly in terms of the cost to the recipients. It might serve as entertainment for Richard (which is actually rather sad come to think of it), but it does little to inform us about the most efficient way to spend regeneration cash.
Richard is also up in arms over us supposedly citing “a mere press report” to back up our numbers. He seems to be referring to a PA story which Lord Kerr didn't quite approve of, about the cost of an EU programme in Northern Ireland. Apparently, Lord Kerr had never heard of the Press Association before. In any case, on page 13 in our original report, the source in question – who happens to be Northern Ireland’s Brussels representative – is clearly and properly cited.
So enough of this nonsense. The OECD, the European Court of Auditors, the influential Sapir report for the Commission, the British Government and plenty of academic literature have highlighted serious flaws with the structural funds - including lack of “convergence” between poorer and richer regions, problems with both the measure for allocating the funds and the disbursement rules, excessive red tape, sloppy spending, mismanagement and a most troubling lack of transparency in the entire system.
Richard Corbett is obviously too busy writing misdirected blog entries and finding ways to amuse himself. But for the rest of us, these flaws matter. Revolutionary as it may sound, we care about the way our tax money is being spent. And we would like to see poorer regions catch up with richer ones – but in the real world, not only in the heads of certain MEPs and Commission officials.