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Don't blame the ref?

Mark Mardell | 16:08 UK time, Monday, 10 November 2008

Whose fault is it that £200m-worth of European Union money (yes, your money) has been misspent in Britain?

It's that time of year again when the auditors go through the EU's books and we have a grand battle of interpretation.

The European Court of Auditors say for the first time in 14 years they have given a clean bill of health for the accounts - even though there are still too many errors.

But it is also a hardy annual red letter day for opponents of the European Union.

UKIP says of the court of auditors report that "the ECA is a European institution and therefore has been politicised in order that it sanitise the devastating truth about the accounts".

The European Commission argues that the mistakes are, on the whole, minor ones, and are largely errors in the paper trail rather than fraud. They are talking about things like bad form-filing, timesheet-keeping and so on. Out of 180 case studies the court found two examples of possible fraud.

The commission argues it is down to the governments of the countries that make up the EU. It is their job to look at how the money is being spent, and make sure it is all happening properly.

One commission source says it's rather like a game of football where the players commit the fouls but the ref gets the blame. But, he adds, the commission's increasingly showing the red or yellow card to offenders.

The commission is trying to claw back £190m that has been misspent in Britain. It is extremely difficult to get examples of what exactly has gone wrong: the commission feels it's unfair to highlight projects which may in themselves have been a success.

But money has, according to the commission, been misspent in South Wales, Greater Manchester, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, North East England and Northern Ireland. The sort of project range from renovation of docklands to link-up projects between universities.

The pressure group Open Europe does not accept this. "The responsibility for this spectacular failure lies partly at the door of member states, but overwhelmingly with the commission," it says.

"Until Byzantine spending schemes such as the CAP and Structural Funds are fundamentally reformed, or scrapped altogether, fraud will continue."

They've also given some interesting examples of what they say is fraud.

The commission says many of these examples are plucked from newspapers, and are inaccurate.

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