The UK government is telling councils to display EU flags across towns and cities in England as a condition for receiving high street Covid recovery cash.
Guidance issued to local authorities by the communities ministry this summer says the blue and yellow symbol of European unity is “required” to be displayed around “every piece of signage, pavement sticker, or temporary public realm adaption” funded under the scheme.
The requirement, which will see thousands of new EU flags posted on official buildings and in public places across the country, exists because the European Regional Development Fund has given money to the UK to help with the Covid-19 reopening.
Despite Brexit having happened, under the withdrawal agreement the UK is still eligible for certain payments from the fund until the end of 2023 – but with strings attached.
The flag rule, imposed from Brussels but enforced from Whitehall, is embarrassing for ministers because they are keen to rid UK public buildings of EU flags, but do not want to turn down the Covid recovery cash.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced only four months ago that it was repealing planning rules dating back to 2007 in a bid to make it harder to fly EU flags.
And some Brexiteers have claimed that leaving the EU has made it easier to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the Welcome Back Fund, councils have been given £56m EU cash to “support the return to high streets safely and to build back better from the pandemic”.
The fund, administered by the government in Westminster, is being spent on adaptions to high streets to “promote a safe environment for local trade and tourism, particularly in high streets as their economies reopen”.
Examples of aid include street planning, extra seating, green spaces and new signage, flowers, and the removal of graffiti – anything that encourages people to return to the high street.
Virtually every local authority in England is getting some of the cash; the biggest recipient is Leave-voting Birmingham, which has landed over £1m in funding.
Liberal Democrat frontbencher Christine Jardine said: “This shows the absurd hypocrisy of this Conservative government. They have spent years denouncing EU projects and pulling the UK out of funding schemes like this, and now they have the gall to trumpet a fund made possible by exactly the sort of European cooperation they are turning their backs on.
“Instead of worrying about displaying the EU flag, the government should be working hard to support the thousands of struggling high street businesses – starting with extending the furlough scheme that’s due to taper off next week.”
Naomi Smith, chief executive of campaign group Best for Britain said: “For a government that measures patriotism by the number of union flags in a BBC report, showing that the EU is helping our highstreets in this particular way will have a bitter taste.”
But she added: “With parts of the UK like Wales previously receiving £400m every year from the EU but now set to receive a measly £10m from the government's levelling up fund, this branding is a small reminder of the support that’s been lost to the areas of the UK most in need.”
The government appears so anxious to comply with the rules stipulating that the EU flag is displayed it has told councils that “copies of all publicity materials, including press releases, marketing activity and posters displayed in venues where activity takes place must be retained to demonstrate proactive activity and the correct use of the EU logo and required text”.
The rules say the flag must be displayed on “all electronic and print publication materials used for information and communications supported by the fund”, including advertisements, leaflets, project reports, posters, and websites.
It also demands the display of “at least one poster of minimum A3 size, readily visible to the public (eg, the entrance area of a public building) at the location of the activities being implemented” that includes the EU flag and reference to the European Regional Development Fund.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government blamed the EU, telling The Independent: “This is not a UK government requirement. Now that we’ve left the EU, this funding will be replaced by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.” EU funding will in fact continue until the end of 2023.
The department spokesperson added: “We are ramping up UK-wide domestic funding to at least match what the EU currently offers – reaching around £1.5bn a year.”