"STRUCTURAL funds are very important for ensuring that an internal market does develop and that all regions in Slovakia will be part of it," said Sue Bird, administrator for the European Commission's Structural Funds Programme for Slovakia.
"We need adequate funding to promote regional development in Slovakia," she continued. Recognising that importance, the presidents of five Slovak regions were in Brussels last month to present their regional development plans and pick up the latest news on how the EU's regional development fund will be implemented in Slovakia. But how well Slovakia will use its €1.7 billion in funds remains to be seen.
Jacques Barrot, the new EU commissioner for regional policy is confident. "There was magnificent preparation work before accession. But I'll be very keen on control and evaluation of the funds. We owe clear and precise accounts of [the] good use of the monies to citizens, the parliament, and member states."
Some 540 regional development projects are now competing for the €1.7 billion from the Structural Funds and Cohesion Fund earmarked for Slovakia between 2004 and 2006. Per capita, Slovakia is set to get around €105 annually, more than Poland's €67, or Hungary's €49. But that still pales in comparison to Greece's €437 and Ireland's €418 per capita in regional funding in 2000.
At the commission's regional policy desk, Bird feels Slovakia has presented concrete projects with a vision for growth poles. "We're very keen on a growth pole approach - achieving a critical mass and expanding on that basis," she said.
A growth pole in eastern Slovakia could help tackle the country's famous east-west divide. Bratislava, for instance, has already overtaken the EU's average GDP per capita by 7 percent. Other regions in the country, especially the far east, continue to face an uphill task in regional development. The Prešov and Košice regions have a GDP per capita that is only 36 percent of the EU average.
No wonder, then, that the director of the Prešov regional office in Brussels, Natalia Tarasovova, is enthusiastic about EU development projects: "Our Regional Development Agency submitted 19 major projects for repairing schools, hospitals, cultural, [and] social care buildings. Now the commission is selecting the first round of proposals and perhaps during the summer some money for projects will arrive." The total sum of the projects amounts to over €12 million.
Prešov also works together with the Abruzzo region in Italy: "We're doing a survey on the information strategies of social services towards poor and socially excluded groups. We are also preparing a project on developing sustainable tourism in cooperation with Abruzzo, Pardubice in the Czech Republic, and Prešov," said Tarasovova.
Many regional policy contacts in Brussels are personal. The previous Slovak ambassador to the EU, Juraj Migaš, for example, spoke good Swedish and encouraged relations between the Swedish office and Slovakia. "Now we're working on concrete projects and helping with policy areas," said Thomas Friis Konst, director of the Stockholm regional office in Brussels.
Stockholm has built up a special relationship with Košice. "They were one of the first Slovak offices to open in Brussels," explains Konst. The Swedes helped Košice set up its Brussels office, allowing the region's representative to work at the Stockholm regional office for several months and showing him around.
The European Commission stresses such new partnerships between European regions. "Euro-regions are an important way of increasing cross-border trade, facilitating border traffic, and improving living conditions in cross-border areas," explained European Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen.
"This has been happening in the Tatras and Carpathian euro-regions since the early to mid-1990s. Bordering on Ukraine, Slovakia, for instance, is well placed to help in this area. We are developing a New Neighbourhood Instrument, which seeks to foster cross-border cooperation, in a wide sense, across the external border of the enlarged union. We are already funding such cross-border projects today, under existing instruments."
Robin Smail of the European Institute of Public Administration organised seminars to help Slovak regions get a good flow of projects and proposals. "The idea was to promote a continual flow of good projects to the regions. Not just a one-time selection," she said.
The project, financed by the Dutch government, has also helped other accession countries become familiar with EU funding projects. Has it worked? "We did the training," Smail said, smiling. "Slovakia shot ahead. You have to appreciate that the government had a vast amount to do in a very short time. They've completed major internal reforms to ensure EU money will be spent well."
Bird at the commission's Slovak unit is also positive about Slovakia's progress: "We feel more confident now and are at ease. We can effectively discuss with the Slovaks. Maybe in the past that was not always the case. And there are still issues to be resolved."
The commission is also in the process of setting up a committee for Roma projects for 2004 - 2006. "There are no quotas specifically for Roma projects but there are incentives," said Bird.
Despite the praise from the commission and EU consultants, Slovak officials back home continue to moan about staff shortages. Civil servant experts on regional policy have taken more lucrative jobs at private companies. Currently, there are about 80 unfilled posts at the Development Ministry for staff connected with projects for EU regional policy. Another 52 staff are missing at the employment ministry.
Will staff shortages mean Slovak projects get funding late? "I hope not. But the lack of human resources in the Slovak ministry caused major problems before," said a Brussels source. "That meant information filtered down slowly from Bratislava to the regions. Sometimes required information came after deadlines."
Slovakia has also come in for criticism for lacking a clear strategy in essential areas such as transport and tourism. "For a country as beautiful as Slovakia, there does not seem to be an overall strategy for tourism. Everybody has different and conflicting tourist projects but nothing has been planned systematically," said the Brussels source. "On television, you see adverts beckoning you to beautiful Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and so on. But adverts for Slovakia never appear."
3. May 2004 at 0:00 | David Ferguson