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SLOVAKIA MAY LOSE OUT IF PROPOSALS FOR EU-FUNDED PROJECTS ARE NOT ADEQUATELY PREPARED, EXPERTS WARN

Officials to be trained on EU issues

IN AN effort to ensure that EU funding finds its way to Slovakia, and that the state administration is sufficiently prepared for the country's accession to the union, the government has launched a new programme to educate decision makers.
The Continuous Professional Training (CPT) Slovakia project was planned after experts warned the country might end up paying more into EU coffers than it gets out unless attitudes and communication improved.
The country is set to become a member of the union in May 2004, following a successful referendum on EU entry on May 16 and 17.

IN AN effort to ensure that EU funding finds its way to Slovakia, and that the state administration is sufficiently prepared for the country's accession to the union, the government has launched a new programme to educate decision makers.

The Continuous Professional Training (CPT) Slovakia project was planned after experts warned the country might end up paying more into EU coffers than it gets out unless attitudes and communication improved.

The country is set to become a member of the union in May 2004, following a successful referendum on EU entry on May 16 and 17.

"The main objective of CPT Slovakia is to create conditions for the effective use of EU structural and cohesive funds," said Martin Kaščák from the European Affairs section of the Government Office.

"Around 35 instructors will be trained [as part of the project]. Before the end of the year, those 35 should train around 400 employees of the state administration and regional governments," he said.

Slovakia is eligible for up to Sk23 billion (€561 million) from EU funds in the following year, and will contribute Sk10.5 billion (€256 million) to the common European budget in the same period.

"That Sk23 billion from the European funds will not go straight into the state budget, and getting it depends on a lot of conditions," said Monika Beňová, head of the parliamentary committee for European integration on May 2.

Beňová warned that if the country does not manage to present enough projects, the money might never arrive, leaving Slovakia paying more than it receives.

The European Commission (EC) has repeatedly warned Slovakia that it should take advantage of the funds on offer, which would help the country develop as expected in the years to come.

However, Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Pál Csáky said he believed the country would get all the money it has been promised.

"We will get all Sk23 billion," Csáky said in TV Markíza's Sito programme on May 22, pointing out that the recently launched training programme is one of the means of attaining that goal.

Officials said the future instructors were chosen from the ranks of various state bodies.

"We approached several educational institutions and ministries, which we asked to put forward experts who have experience running training programmes. These candidates were given two tests in English, and based on the results, they attended personal interviews with lecturers, who examined their qualities and motivation," Kaščák said, explaining the selection process.

The prospective instructors will be trained by lecturers from the Danish School of Public Administration, which was chosen as a partner for the project in January. The institution has experience running similar programmes in Estonia, Croatia, and Latvia.

"The training is comprised of five modules. The first covers basic issues and is intended mainly for less experienced workers, and the remaining four focus on the drawing of EU structural funds. It covers basic facts of law, project management, and information about the funds themselves," said Kaščák.

Organisers say it will not be difficult to select 400 officials from ministries and local governments to be trained by the instructors, once they are ready to pass on their new knowledge.

"Most of these institutions already have sections or departments that deal with the [EU integration] agenda. I heard that in some places even city councils have people who are responsible for this area. Now it's only a matter of bringing them together and training them," said Kaščák.

All instructors will be registered in a database and will be able to provide their services in the future, as the need arises.

CPT Slovakia is not the first training programme of its type. A large number of Slovaks have already been instructed about various aspects of EU integration.

"According to information in my possession, 2,650 employees from various ministries have already attended educational activities related to the integration process. Some of these programmes were of a general nature, but some were highly specialised," said Zdena Vasilová, director of the education section of the state Public Service Office (ÚPŠS).

"For example, the Construction and Regional Development Ministry did a specialised preparatory course on work in the field of structural funds, in cooperation with eight universities from Austria and Slovakia. In 2001, around 380 people from the state and local administration, NGOs, and professional associations attended the course. And there have been many similar programmes going on, albeit on a smaller scale," she added.

Vasilová admitted that it remains a mystery why these people are not more active now.

"I also ask myself where the people that received this information are today. Perhaps they feel insecure about using their knowledge," she said.

Communication has been identified as a problem that hampers a significant amount of public-sector work.

"We recently conducted a survey in which we asked state employees what they see as the main barrier in their work. We were expecting it to be language skills, which is a problem for older people especially. We were surprised that communication skills were at the top of the list, followed by language," said Vasilová.

The government's plans indicate that as many as 25 MPs might be trained as part of CPT Slovakia, and a number of slips by politicians in recent months suggest such instruction will be useful.

"Five, or 50?" was the reply from Zuzana Plháková, MP for the Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) and a substitute member of the joint parliamentary committee on the EU and Slovakia, when a journalist asked her how many current EU member states there were in January of this year.

However, surprisingly few MPs seem to be interested in learning more about the EU. On March 24, Csáky prepared an informational meeting about aspects of Slovakia's entry into the union and the referendum campaign on EU accession, at the time only weeks away. Speakers included Csáky, Slovakia's main negotiator with the EU, Ján Figeľ, and Eric van der Linden, head of the EC delegation in Slovakia.

Each party was given the opportunity to send up to 14 members of its caucus. In the end, only five MPs showed up.

"Their lack of interest is striking," said Imrich Béreš from ANO, the only coalition MP to attend the meeting.

In April, Béreš resigned from his position on the EU's committee of the regions in protest at the other Slovak representatives on the committee, regional politicians who he said did not meet the requirements of the job.

"I'm concerned about professionalism. The right people should be sitting in these places - people who understand the issues and are able to defend the interests of Slovakia in a foreign language," he said on April 15, adding that many representatives were not able to communicate effectively in any language other than Slovak.

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