Anthony Browne is a former director of Policy Exchange and a former Europe correspondent of the Times.
One of the most cynical policies of the EU is to insist that it should do regional development funding in the richer member states, who are much better capable of doing it themselves.
It is quite literally a money-go-round: the UK government gives money to the EU, which then gives it back to UK regions in a range of economic and social development programmes, and then sticks an EU flag on it. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led a campaign to get back control of this funding, arguing that the UK government should be in charge of UK regional development.
When I asked the Dalia Grybauskaitė, then EU Budget Commissioner (and now President of Lithuania) why the EU didn’t want to give control of regional development funding back to national governments, she said that it was because it would then become subject to “democratic whim”. The thought!
In Boris Johnson’s first term as Mayor of London, I was in charge of these funds in London (amounting to a few hundred million pounds a year), and they came with all sorts of inappropriate strings attached that were little to do with the actual needs of London, and with large dollops of mind-numbing bureaucracy.
A whole industry exists helping companies wanting grants to navigate this paperwork. One of the requirements was that City Hall had to hold a celebration each year to thank the EU for its generosity of giving the UK’s money back to the UK (I didn’t attend). I developed a keen eye for EU-funded projects around the UK: they are often noticeably massive over-investments in unsustainable capital-intensive initiatives that someone must have persuaded the budget-holder was a good idea at the time. The trouble is that no one – in the European Commission or the UK government – has any incentive to make sure the money was spent effectively.
Come Brexit, this whole charade will come to an end. The UK government will have full control of its regional development funding, to suit our national and regional priorities. There is quite rightly a big political push to promote the so-called Nothern Powerhouse (an initiative that stretches across the EU’s regional boundaries of the UK, so that it could not be simply funded by the EU). How about a Northern Powerhouse fund?