Chris Patten, the European commissioner for external relations, has delivered an uncompromising ultimatum to the European Union member states, telling them the bloc's £7bn overseas aid budget will be slashed by two-thirds unless they give him enough staff to spend the cash properly.
The move is part of proposals approved by the European Commission yesterday to end the reputation of Brussels as a slow and inefficient distributor of aid. Chronic understaffing has caused the Commission to sub-contract out much of the work, often to companies that are either expensive, inefficient or even corrupt.
Mr Patten is determined to avoid taking the blame for weaknesses in projects that his department has insufficient resources to run.
Yesterday, he told the European Parliament: "We cannot go on as before. My only aim is to put the Commission into a position to run EU external aid properly and competently. If the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers agree to our ideas we can implement them from 2001. If not the Commission will be obliged to propose very big cuts of up to two-thirds to scale existing projects back [to] what we can manage properly."
Despite the vast sums spent on development, Brussels has attracted more adverse than positive publicity for some of its most important work. The present backlog of commitments has reached more than 20bn euros (£12bn) and, in the past five years, the average delay in distributing committed funds has increased from three to four and a half years.
For some programmes the backlog is equivalent to eight and a half years' payments.