EC approves aid package after row

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The Independent Online
BRUSSELS - The last hurdle in the way of EC aid worth pounds 2bn to Merseyside and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was cleared yesterday only after a sick Jacques Delors had been summoned to arbitrate a bitter all-night tussle between Portugal and Ireland, writes Sarah Lambert.

Ireland refused any deal on a seven-year regional funding package that awarded it less than the pounds 8bn which the Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, said he had been promised. When it looked as though Ireland might win its case, Portugal took everybody by surprise by announcing it would block any deal that met Dublin's claims.

Exasperated, the meeting's chairman, the Belgian Foreign Minister, Willy Claes, called for the Commission President, Mr Delors. Bent double with sciatica he arrived in a very bad mood to knock heads together. The punishing face-to-face meetings ran late into the night.

The final accord, struck at 5am, gave Ireland 7.84bn Irish pounds (pounds 7.46bn), although it took much fiddling with the figures to reach that sum, which EC sources said yesterday is in reality substantially less. It also set Mr Delors against the EC Commissioner for Regional Affairs, Bruce Millan, who had argued that the Commission must not give way to political arm-twisting.

In the process Britain, like most other member states, saw money shaved off its opening bid in the share-out for a record pounds 113.2bn worth of regional aid: 70 per cent of this is earmarked for areas of special hardship which include all of Ireland, Portugal and Greece, most of Spain, southern Italy and Northern Ireland.

For the first time that list has been lengthened to include the British regions, east Berlin and the former East Germany, bits of Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Tim Sainsbury, the junior Trade Minister, called the pounds 2bn deal for Merseyside and the Highlands and Islands 'satisfactory', adding that 'in a negotiation like this, nobody gets everything they want and in any case, we came away having secured 20 per cent more than we were originally offered'.