ALTHOUGH Slovakia has used only a fraction of the money available to it from the EU's pre-accession rural development fund, Agriculture Minister Zsolt Simon has shrugged off criticism that Slovak farmers and regional administrators are not prepared to make use of the funds.
By the end of May, Slovakia's SAPARD agency, responsible for administering funds from the EU's Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development, had signed 106 project contracts worth Sk608.5 million (€15 million) in agency funds.
Slovakia has been approved to use around €57 million in SAPARD funds, but the projects must be approved before the country's entry to the EU in May 2004, and the money spent by 2006.
While the amount already allocated is only 32 percent of the SAPARD funds earmarked for Slovakia for 2000 and 2001, Simon said at a late-May press conference that use of the funds should grow rapidly this July, after the scope of projects fundable through SAPARD is expanded and overlapping government subsidies are rolled back.
"It is very important right now that we generate maximum effort so that farmers, those in the food sector, and regional and local administrations in the regions have enough information to be able to apply for these funds," said Simon.
"It is about projects in which municipalities can apply for funds for building infrastructure, reconstructing water pipes, gas pipes, sewage systems, and similar [activities]," said Simon, adding that from this summer, SAPARD would also be accredited to fund animal husbandry and land-development projects.
"We predict that by the end of June, there will be 260 to 300 projects closed with SAPARD," said agency head Vadim Haraj. Slovak authorities have already received 191 project requests for a total of Sk2.26 billion (€55 million), he added.
"By the end of the year, there should by a minimum of 400 to 450 projects [closed]," said Haraj.
While EU administrators have been critical of Slovakia for what they say is a lack of preparedness in administering and using EU funding, Simon thinks that the country is on schedule to make full use of the pre-accession funds.
"You have to realise that in Slovakia the [SAPARD] agency was accredited a year later than in surrounding countries, and because of that, we have had fewer requests," said Simon.
"The previous system, whereby agricultural [enterprises] applied for resources from the state rather than submitting SAPARD projects, was simpler," he said.
One of the largest obstacles for those seeking SAPARD funding has been co-financing rules, requiring applicants to find their own resources to cover some project costs. For many cash-strapped agricultural enterprises, however, meeting co-financing rules and economic management requirements has proved difficult.
But officials from Slovakia's Agriculture Ministry say loan guarantees for farmers will be available through the Slovak Guarantee and Development Bank (SZRB), which last year received Sk500 million (€12.1 million) from the ministry for the programme. Simon said another Sk500 million would be transferred to the bank in the near future.
"Everyone who now has a project approved by SAPARD in Slovakia can turn to a bank guarantee for registered collateral and will not be rejected," said Simon.
Since June 2001, Slovak agriculture officials have been holding training seminars on the mechanics of accessing EU funds for agriculture professionals, local government representatives, and non-governmental organisations throughout the country.
In addition, explained Simon on June 3, the single payment system designed by lawmakers to replace the current agricultural payment agency will ease the administrative demands of distributing the funds, while the more demanding Integrated Administrative and Control System (IACS), required by the EU to use structural and cohesive funds, is set up.
According to the minister, the single payment system is compatible with the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and can be used to distribute EU funds until 2006, with an option of extending the system for two years.
But European Commission (EC) representatives have been warning Slovakia that it is still lagging in implementing the IACS, threatening Slovakia's ability to directly pay out money from EU funds after its accession next May.
The simplification of procedures proposed by the ministry will also tilt the field towards crop farmers who work on larger areas and away from animal breeders, Daniel Ács, project manager for the EC delegation in Slovakia, told the daily SME.
"From the perspective of the amount of money available, calculation methods are different and depend on the number of hectares.
"That means that there is a certain preference for farmers producing plants, and farmers oriented towards animal production are at a disadvantage," said Ács.
While accessing EU funds may be more difficult than accessing state funds in the past, Ács stressed that the Slovakia will need the experience of working with SAPARD in order to bring its agriculture sector up to EU levels, as well as to prepare for structural and cohesive funds, which will be available to the country for the first time next year.
"SAPARD helps modernise agriculture and prepare the food sector for the demanding technological, hygienic, and environmental norms of the EU," said Ács.
"While it is demanding bureaucratic work, it is an exceedingly important instrument for preparing farmers to use structural funds," he said.
9. Jun 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka