Agriculture policy not an obstacle to EU

The wide halls of the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture are bustling at 4 p.m. Most government offices at this time in the day are as quiet as if it were Sunday. Teams of people coming out of meeting rooms with colleagues still arguing, rumpled shirts, crooked ties and tired eyes are all trademarks in a day's work when trying to integrate into the European Union's complex agriculture policy.
Jumping in and out of his chair Anton Pitoňák, director of the Agriculture Ministry's EU integration department, epitomizes this work effort. "Our agriculture policy is not a stumbling block for EU integration," Pitoňák said. "We are simply too small a country, with a small agricultural output, to pose any problems to EU countries."
There are problems and sticking points according to Pitoňák, but he believed that if the "top policy makers take us in the right direction," issues in agriculture would be solved.

The wide halls of the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture are bustling at 4 p.m. Most government offices at this time in the day are as quiet as if it were Sunday. Teams of people coming out of meeting rooms with colleagues still arguing, rumpled shirts, crooked ties and tired eyes are all trademarks in a day's work when trying to integrate into the European Union's complex agriculture policy.

Jumping in and out of his chair Anton Pitoňák, director of the Agriculture Ministry's EU integration department, epitomizes this work effort. "Our agriculture policy is not a stumbling block for EU integration," Pitoňák said. "We are simply too small a country, with a small agricultural output, to pose any problems to EU countries."

There are problems and sticking points according to Pitoňák, but he believed that if the "top policy makers take us in the right direction," issues in agriculture would be solved.

The sticking points for Slovakia's agriculture policy are:

1) difficulties in passing agricultural legislation that complies with EU norms;
2) agreeing to terms of the EU's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP);
3) structural changes within the EU that make Slovakia's and other Central European countries admittance undesirable.

To help assist Slovakia in its transition, the EU has set up through EC PHARE, policy advisors who help in the integration. "PHARE has set up support projects on harmonization of agriculture policy and legislation in the agriculture sector," said Dušan Dobrovodský, who works on agriculture policy at the EU delegation in Bratislava.

At issue as far as legislation goes is the EU's so called "White Paper" which sets the conditions for prospective country's legislation. There are thousands of pages on proper regulations, health standards, controlling and testing food and drugs, which lists only the start.

"In order to even start EU negotiations we have to pass 80 to 90 percent of the legislation," said Pitoňák. "Right now we have passed 16 percent."

The Agriculture Ministry has prepared about 50 percent of the necessary legislation to go before parliament. "The bills are stuck in parliament not because there is any dispute," said Peter Janičina, coordinator at the Department for Coordination of European Integration at the Agriculture Ministry. "It's just a question of volume. There is so much waiting at parliament from all the ministries trying to push EU integration laws through."

Pitoňák said that he hopes that 90 percent of the legislation will pass by the end of 1998.

Moving to the bigger problem of "harmonizing" (the EU buzz word for integration) CAP, Pitoňák said the biggest problem is changing mentality of state farm planning to the market economy. "We have to change habits," he said. "In 1990 state subsidies were 20 billion Sk, now they account for 8 billion Sk."

Prices have had to change to fit into a market economy. "I know the EU is not happy with us because we have had to support some areas," said Janičina. He named fertilizer, sheep farming, and seeds. "For us it is a matter of supporting more than just agriculture, but our national heritage that comes from farming the hills and mountains," said Pitoňák. "We have to protect our identity."

The third area of contention is in the structural policy of the EU itself. The EU supports regions in the union that have a GDP less than 75 percent of the EU average. This helps poorer countries such as Portugal and Greece. They would see these subsidies disappear if new countries came in.

"The EU wants to bring poorer areas of the union closer to the norm," said Pitoňák. "If they brought us in, that money would funnel right to us. They are not ready to do that."

Pitoňák predicted that Slovakia won't seriously be involved in the EU for 20 years. "I hope to see us enter the EU in my lifetime, so I have some work to do."

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