England's Eden blossoms under Brussels roof

The tropical tranquillity beneath the striking domes of Britain's Eden Project, paid for with EU cash, is a sweet-scented haven from the bitter political row over the bloc's budget.

A view of the inside of the Mediterranean Biome at the Eden Project in St Austell, Cornwall, southwest England, on November 12. The tropical tranquillity beneath the striking domes of Britain's Eden Project, paid for with EU cash, is a sweet-scented haven from the bitter political row over the bloc's budget.

The Eden Project is one of Britain's top tourist attractions but few realise that its giant, bubble-like biomes were largely funded by European Union money targeting the continent's most deprived corners.

Created from a former clay pit in Cornwall, England's most southwesterly county, the eco-attraction brings in around a million visitors a year to enjoy its tropical and temperate flora from around the world.

While outside it is a cool, foggy November day, inside the Mediterranean Biome, gentle birdsong, the sound of a trickling stream and smells of herbs and citrus fruits fill the summery air.

Across in the larger Rainforest Biome, the world's largest jungle in captivity, the humidity hits 92 percent and temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius at the swaying canopy viewing platform.

Near the waterfall, tropical fowl shelter under ruffled fan palms while heavy drops of condensation rain down from the translucent plastic roof.

Opened in March 2001, the Eden Project has received about pound sterling30 million ($48 million, 37 million euros) of EU funding, without which it would have struggled to get off the ground.

"It would have been a much-reduced project. I genuinely think we would not have gone ahead at this size," Eden's development director Dan James told AFP at the site outside St Austell, Cornwall's biggest town.

"We're really grateful but we'd like to think that they're equally grateful for the economic impact we've brought to the region" -- an estimated pound sterling1.2 billion boost to the economy.

The Eden Project has benefited from EU development funds which classed Cornwall among the likes of Bulgaria, Romania and southern Spain as some of the poorest places in the 27-nation bloc.

The investment seems to have worked, as the attraction now employs 500 staff and has generated about 2,000 peripheral jobs in the local area.

It is hoping for further cash from the EU's 2014 to 2020 budget to invest in its new HOW2 exhibition space, showcasing sustainable technologies.

That budget has yet to be agreed however, and will be the subject of a bitter fight between EU leaders when they meet in Brussels on Thursday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to veto any real terms rise.

But lawmakers in his Conservative Party and the Labour opposition are angrily demanding Brussels implement the same austerity cuts that many of the 27 member states -- including Britain -- have introduced following the financial crisis.

Britain is one of the richest members of the European Union and a net contributor to the budget -- a cause of perpetual anger among eurosceptics, especially those in the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

The Earl of Dartmouth, a UKIP member of the European Parliament for South West England, does not dispute the benefits Cornwall has enjoyed but said the money could have been better spent if it had not gone via Brussels.

"We get some money back but only after the Brussels bureaucracy has taken the croupier's slice. It makes no sense at all. Funding should be determined at the national level," he said.

Picturesque, rural and remote, Cornwall has a population of just 535,000.

Trains to London can take up to five hours, while parts of the county are as far from the British capital as Germany, Dublin or Paris.

The collapse of its once-powerful tin mining industry and the seasonal nature of its traditional bucket-and-spade beach holiday tourism left Cornwall struggling.

But then the EU stepped in, providing more than pound sterling900 million in so-called structural funds since 1994.

Beneficiaries have included Newquay Airport, which provided an air link to London and Manchester; chef Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant, which trains up disadvantaged youths, and the Tremough higher education campus outside Falmouth.

Tremough brings together six universities and colleges on one campus and has 4,000 students, with an eye on keeping Cornish brains in the county.

One chunk of Cornwall's money has gone into giving it rural Europe's largest superfast broadband network.

The European Regional Development Fund is contributing up to pound sterling53.5 million, the remainder, up to pound sterling78.5 million, coming from British telecoms group BT.

The first communities were connected in January 2011 and it should be provided to 80 percent of residents by 2014, at speeds of up to 100 megabits per second.

Julian Cowans, Superfast Cornwall's programme manager, said the benefits were already being seen, with companies and citizens able to do much more online than before.

"We're out on a limb here," he said of the county. "This is one way we can overcome that 'peripherality'.

"IT sector businesses can compete globally."

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency