European structural funds investigation
UPDATE: see below for later reaction from the European Commission.
The Brussels press corps got a change from Ireland bail-outs on Tuesday, when the European Commission decided to make structural funds the topic of the day.
Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen, Commission spokeswoman, spent the first 15 minutes of the daily midday briefing vocally defending cohesion funds, in direct response to day 1 of the FT’s expose.
“It is simply not true that cohesion funding lies idle under red tape,” she said, reprising our front-page headline. Her argument, which I expect will find its way onto the FT’s letters page, is that the money isn’t sitting on EU bank accounts – but rather has yet to be called up from member states. Read more
In addition to Europe’s contribution to the 85bn-euro Irish rescue package, 14 members of the eurozone are being stuck with an additional bailout-related bill from Dublin. It comes to 963m euros, and it represents Ireland’s remaining share of the 110bn euro Greek bailout agreed in May.
After securing its own bailout on Sunday, Ireland informed its fellow eurozone partners that it would no longer be able to shoulder its 1.3bn euro commitment to Greece. Before running into its own debt problems, Dublin chipped in 346m euros for that cause earlier this year. The result, according to the rules of that agreement, is that the rest of its obligation will now be divided up among the other participating eurozone members. Read more
How are European Union structural funds managed? That is – literally – the €347bn question.
That’s the amount the EU plans to spend between 2007 and 2013 on around 2m projects designed to boost development across the continent, particularly in its newer, poorer member states. Read more
With all the talk of tumbling eurozone dominos, there is increasing chatter about whether Belgium, one of the founding members of the European Union, might feel the same chill winds as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and others on the “periphery” have felt recently.
At first glance, Belgium looks indeed like a contender for trouble. Its public debt is worth 100 per cent of its GDP, the third highest in the eurozone after Greece and Italy. It has had no government since the last one collapsed in April, and no viable coalitions has yet emerged from the ensuing elections. Read more
Christmas has come early to Brussels’ beleaguered eurocrats, thanks to a ruling from the European Court of Justice. After months of deliberation, the ECJ sided with EU staff in their pay dispute with member states.
Specifically, the court found that Scrooge-like member states overstepped their powers when they sought to cut in half a 3.7 per cent pay raise due thousands of diplomats and staff at the European institutions for 2009.
Civil servant pay is a touchy subject in Brussels, where eurocrats have long had to endure taunts that they are first-class passengers on a champagne-soaked and caviar-laden gravy train. But it has arguably never been so sensitive, given the bleak age of austerity now dawning across Europe. Read more
The statement issued last night by the Eurogroup finance ministers referred to the “fiscal adjustment” and “structural reform” that Ireland will have to undertake as a condition for tens of billions of euros in emergency loans.
But Jan Kees de Jager, the Dutch finance minister, put it more bluntly in his own statement. “Ireland will have to cut fast and deep,” Mr De Jager said. As if that were not unpleasant enough, he ominously added that “The IMF will have a prominent role in drawing up the aid package.” Read more
Brussels has always been sensitive about stories showcasing EU money being spent frivolously, and every year squirms when the European Court of Auditors releases its findings that structural funds are the most problematic bit of the EU budget (even though the situation is improving).
The current budget negotiations for 2011 are stalled, with national leaders led by the UK’s David Cameron reluctant to plough more money into the EU while forcing budget cuts at home, but also harbouring some doubts over the way Brussels then spends the cash. Read more
It has not been easy for the last year to find someone in Brussels willing to say something nice about Greece - the country that fiddled with its financial figures for years, forced European leaders to underwrite a hugely unpopular bailout, and whose hairdressers have apparently been retiring (unbeknownst to German autoworkers) at age 50 and with full benefits.
But Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs – who has lost several weekends to emergency discussions over Greece – offered some rare kind words today. Mr Rehn noted that for the first time, Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency, was able to certify the government’s books “without any reservations.”
“This is a major achievement, and I want to congratulate the Greek authorities,” the commissioner said. Read more
After days of internecine sniping between leaders of the 16 eurozone countries over Ireland’s debt crisis, officials involved in Tuesday night’s marathon meeting of finance ministers from the euro group say that their session was free of the kind of drama that many had feared heading into the summit.
Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish finance minister who is also the chief economic spokesman for the centre-right caucus of European political parties, called the discussion “pragmatic” and said it focused on the Irish banking sector and how any aid would help restructure it in a way that could stop the bleeding. Read more
Brussels bureau chief Peter Spiegel says Ireland and Portugal face a grilling on their budgets at the meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels, and that pressure is building on these countries to take rescue aid, as fear of debt contagion across the eurozone increases.