Some senior ministers reportedly want to divert aid from “wasteful” projects in Africa and Asia to allies in eastern Europe in a bid to get a better Brexit deal.
Downing Street officials and senior cabinet ministers believe part of the Government’s £12bn aid budget should be used to win support for a favourable deal from Brussels.
According to The Sunday Times, the proposed plan would see aid money being diverted from projects described as “questionable” in developing countries in Asia and Africa to Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, which so far have been allies of the UK.
The manoeuvre is reportedly designed to persuade eastern European countries to back the demands of the UK, when negotiating its exit from the EU.
But the controversial proposal has already started a war between ministers and officials at the Department for International Development (DfID), the newspaper suggests.
DfId insists the plan is illegal under international rules since the only countries that qualify for overseas development spending in eastern Europe are Ukraine and Albania, neither of which are members of the EU.
Rules over which country is eligible for development spending are set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
One senior government source told The Sunday Times ministers were looking at the aid budget “with hungry eyes”.
Other senior sources said Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon and other ministers wanted to see the aid budget go towards efforts to improve the Brexit deal. Chancellor Philip Hammond is also reported to be interested in the idea.
This comes after Mr Johnson announced he would set aside up to £700m from the aid budget to boost “soft” power for Ukraine and the Baltic states, which face the threat of increasing Russian aggression.
This “empowerment fund” comes at a time of growing criticism over the way the UK spends money on foreign aid.
Labour MP Mike Gapes, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told The Independent the information was leaked only a few weeks before the new budget is due to be announced and that for the time being this was a matter of “wait and see”.
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