MANY regional development projects are riding on EU structural funds of more than a billion euro.
The document, prepared by Slovakia's Construction and Regional Development Ministry and submitted to Brussels on March 14, sets the administrative and statistical groundwork under which the country can use EU development funds.
"The whole [plan] contains characteristics and information on areas where EU funds are directed. We will continue to consult with the European Commission on individual chapters, but without [the NRP] we would not be able to use EU structural funds," said Zsolt Lukáč, state secretary of the Construction Ministry.
"The NRP lays out where it is necessary, and possible, to invest money from the EU," he said.
Between 2004 and 2006, Slovakia will have access to more than a billion euro in EU structural and cohesive funds, which can be used to support projects in industry and service, human resources, agriculture, infrastructure, and other areas.
The Slovak government will have to provide nearly 370 million euro in matching funds over the same period, while an additional 300 million euro should come from private sources.
Under the NDP, most of Slovakia's structural funds will be available to fund development in regions where the average living standard, measured as GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power, is less than 75 per cent of the EU average. Of Slovakia's eight regions, only Bratislava has living standards higher than this level.
While EU diplomats have praised Slovakia's general progress in preparing for accession so far, they have repeatedly warned that the country's regional governments may not be up to the task of administering structural funds under EU regional policy.
"Slovakia will become an EU member state in a year, and from January 2004 will have access to structural funds. It is important that the regional organs are prepared at all levels," said Eric van der Linden, head of the European Commission delegation to Slovakia at a meeting of European and regional government officials in east Slovakia's Prešov.
"Because of that, we are explaining aspects of EU regional policy in specific regions," he said.
European officials following the progress of the union's 10 accession countries in implementing EU-mandated legislative reform have recently sent out warnings to individual states for lagging in certain areas.
While Slovakia, with two warnings, received fewer notices than many accession states, it was the only country criticised by the EU for its regional policy. EU officials say the country needs to build up its regional governments to be able to handle EU project administration.
"One of the negatives of regional development in Slovakia is the insufficient administrative capacity," said van der Linden.
"Slovakia was in fact the only country to get a warning letter because of the chapter on regional policy and structural funds. But this warning should not be understood as a catastrophe. I think it's better for a given country to be warned systematically every three months rather than wait with the warnings until the day of accession," he said.
Slovak government officials say they are taking the matter seriously and have already prepared a number of measures to increase the abilities of regional governments to develop and administer projects.
Slovakia's main EU negotiator Ján Figeľ said a priority would be finding qualified staff for the regional governments to ensure the country can use structural funds from January 2004.
"It's about the people who are going to carry everything out, and there have to be technically skilled and ethical people in the period before us. In many areas there have been structural changes in adopting new norms, and these have to go hand-in-hand with personnel matters," Figeľ said.
Construction Minister László Gyurovszky has presented a system he says will minimise problems stemming from access to funds, and deputy PM for integration Pál Csáky has said the government is already working to find qualified people for regional administration before the EU funds become available.
"In the area of administrative capacity, we are taking two steps. Firstly, we are enabling the faster and more effective acquisition of skilled people, and secondly, we are trying to pay them better," said Csáky.
"I don't want to say that we have time for everything, but again I don't think there is a reason right now to be nervous," he said.
24. Mar 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka