LIVERPOOL looks likely to have to pay back its full European grant before it can legally use its taxpayer-funded terminal as a start and finish point for lucrative cruises.

Southampton’s cruise business rival has already been told it must repay £8.8m of UK state aid given towards its Pier Head terminal, and a Hampshire Euro MP and the city’s council leader both said yesterday they are hopeful EU bosses will also demand its cash be returned.

Port bosses and politicians representing the south coast have argued that using public cash to tout for business against Southampton docks, which has been developed through private funding, gives Liverpool an unfair advantage.

The Merseyside city has already been accused of jumping the gun by already launching its first “turnaround” cruise, less than a week after the Government said restrictions on the city would be lifted if it paid back public cash used to build a new terminal.

Shipping minister Mike Penning said the city would no longer be limited to offering calling cruises if it makes a one-off payment, or £12.6m over 15 years, subject to the European Commission granting state aid clearance.

But Liverpool also received £8.6m of European cash for the terminal, and Tory South East MEP Daniel Hannan said yesterday he is “hopeful” that this too will have to be paid back.

Speaking after a “very positive” meeting with the Competition Commissioner alongside North East MEP Martin Callanan, who has also campaigned for a level playing field on the use of subsidies, Mr Hannan said he believes it is right all grants are handed back.

He said: “There will then be a level playing field, and Liverpool will be free to run whatever services it wants.

“I wish Liverpool every success. The cruise business is growing fast, and there ought to be plenty of custom for everyone. But subsidies are never a secure basis for a business plan.”

Southampton City Council leader Cllr Richard Williams said he had written to the European Competition Commissioner, urging him to ensure that the rules are enforced.

He said: “No one minds fair competition but the situation we find ourselves in is one that is not a level playing field, and that’s all we are asking for.

“State aid should not be used to bias the market and we are working hard to get that resolved.

“I hope (the Commission) will enforce the unfair competition rules.”