Will Brussels Sprout More EU Cash? Reporter Alistair Houghton Visits the EU Capital to Find out If Merseyside Will Win More Grant Aid

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Byline: Alistair Houghton

AS SO often at major conferences, what's going on behind the scenes is more interesting than what goes on in the public eye.

Last week's European Open Days programme in Brussels provided a fiesta of opportunities for regions and cities from throughout the continent to showcase their achievements.

Merseyside was well represented, as was the wider North West, with topics including the WICED women's enterprise centre in Liverpool being discussed by delegates from across the Continent.

Yet, for all the optimism expressed in the dozens of public meetings and seminars, the future of Europe was being decided in a flurry of meetings in rooms throughout the jungle of office blocks that is Brussels' European quarter.

Discussions are now well under way on the EU's next budget round, which will run from 2013 to 2020.

Merseyside has benefited hugely from billions of pounds in European funding over the years, under Objective 1 and successor funding programmes. It had been thought that Liverpool and other similar regions in Western Europe would not get funding on such levels in the future, as money would be directed towards poorer states in Eastern Europe.

But instead it is now looking more likely that the next EU budget, from 2013 until 2020, will include support for regions right across the EU. That could see Merseyside winning another pounds 500m in European funding.

Officials from more than 80% of the EU's 271 regions have signed a declaration calling for such support to be offered EU-wide. Last Thursday, many of those signatories took part in a lobby in Brussels, presenting a petition to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.

European Commissioner for regional policy Johannes Hahn - the EU's most senior official in charge of regional policy - signalled last week that the Commission was looking to maintain support to all countries, including the UK.

Speaking to UK journalists, he said: "We understand regional policy as an investment policy, a policy that should cover all the regions."

It may surprise some that regions in the UK will still be eligible for funding. 'policy should But the logic is simple. The Commission wants not only to boost the poorer regions of Europe, but also to ensure that wealthier regions stay competitive against other parts of the world.

cover regions' EU officials not only want to make sure that Romania gets richer, but want to ensure that the UK and Germany stay competitive against international rivals such as Japan.

Even the South East of England could find itself with another tranche of European funding.

As one European Commission representative pointed out, the South East needs to compete against Japan and the US - and Europe as a whole will miss out if one of its main wealth-generating regions falls behind its wealthy rivals. The new budget priorities will also have to match the European Commission's 2020 strategy for "smart, sustainable and inclusive growth" - and a Europe-wide strategy can only work if all countries are involved.

Merseyside's battle for more European funding has yet to be won. While more than 80% of the EU's regions have signed up to the deal, national governments have not yet done so.

all Even the British government has yet to agree. In a letter to the Daily Post last week, Cllr Paul Brant, deputy leader of Liverpool's Labour-run council, and Arlene McCarthy, a Labour MEP, said they would be pushing the coalition Government to back more EU funding.

And the countries of Eastern Europe that would otherwise have got extra funding may complain if they miss out.

But North West representatives at last week's event were optimistic that the North West could win hundreds of millions of pounds more in funding. Liverpool-born Suzy Sumner, head of the Northwest Development Agency's (NWDA's) Brussels office, said last Thursday's lobby was significant as it brought together regions from across Europe. …