* EIB nears UK annual lending budget before referendum
* Investment body sharply increased media activity in UK
* Officials say lending, publicity not linked to EU vote
By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS, May 20 (Reuters) - When a manager of the EU’s investment arm paid a routine visit to a Manchester sewage works this week and alerted British media to the event, it was the latest move in a concerted charm offensive ahead of Britain’s EU referendum.
The Luxembourg-based European Investment Bank insists that a surge in its PR activity in Britain and new loans this year to British projects that have already nearly matched what the EIB lent in all of 2015 is not related to next month’s Brexit vote.
Rather, the increase in the number of media releases it has published on British loans is part of a broader new strategy of transparency, it says; the fact it has nearly reached its 2016 annual lending target for Britain in under five months is due to a tendency for more projects to be announced early in the year.
The figures, however, are striking. A review by Reuters found that so far this year the EIB has issued 16 press releases on loans in Britain, more than an entire year on average and three times more than it has issued on deals in Italy and twice as many as for Spain, both usually much bigger EIB borrowers.
An apparent pickup in their publication since Prime Minister David Cameron’s re-election a year ago made a referendum all but certain has seen 25 EIB statements on Britain, on average about two per month. New UK loans this year are about 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) compared with 5.6 billion in all of 2015.
A spokesman said Britons could expect little new EIB lending this year after the June 23 referendum as the expected annual volume of loans to Britain had already been largely reached.
While the European Commission has largely stayed out of the campaign for fear it would be counterproductive to Cameron’s Remain camp facing a Eurosceptic electorate, the EIB has taken pains to present the benefits of its work to a British public evenly split on whether to quit the bloc, a move that would end access to EIB funding for British business.
“As the largest lender to the UK water sector since before privatisation, the European Investment Bank is pleased to support the impressive new investment by United Utilities at Davyhulme,” EIB Vice President Jonathan Taylor, a former senior official in Britain’s Treasury, said on his Manchester visit.
“The scheme will provide benefits for ... decades to come.”
The publicity efforts by the EIB, which is 16-percent owned by the British government as one of 28 EU member states, has drawn scorn from those campaigning to leave the bloc, however.
“EU projects are paid for by British taxpayers, not some magical money tree in Brussels,” said Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of Vote Leave, when asked about the EIB. “It is safer to take back control and spend our money on our priorities.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Louise Ireland