Slovakia: Dispute over devolution could threaten EU funds

Photo: European Commission

Since joining the EU in 2004 the former communist countries of Central Europe have been drawing on EU structural funds to improve infrastsructure, reduce poverty and support agriculture. However in the case of Slovakia there's a risk that some of that money - up to 11 billion euros - may never be allocated. The problem is a dispute over who gets to hold the purse strings - Bratislava or the regions.

Photo: European Commission
Less than 50% of the total EU sum allocated to Slovakia for the 2004-2006 period has been used so far. Milan Belica, governor of the Nitra self governing region explains why governors believe it would be better to partially decentralize EU funds administrative.

"The explanation is very simple. One of the crucial goals of the EU is to implement the so-called subsidiarity principle. It means that the decision making process should be transferred to the lowest levels of country's administrative. In this case, it is the regions that should have the power to decide on specific local projects financed by EU funds. These projects are mostly under the regional operational program."

The Ministry of Construction is in the hands of co-ruling Slovak National Party. Rafael Rafaj, the party's spokesman objects to the governor's argument.

"Regional governors often think only of competencies and they forget about responsibilities. In the case of EU funds, it is the state represented in this case by the Ministry of Construction, which is the partner for the EU".

The Governor of Nitra self governing region Milan Belica responds by giveing the example from neighboring states.

"Of course it is the government that is responsible for EU funds. But the governments in Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland are also responsible and yet, they transferred the competencies over the regional operational program on regions".

The Minister of Construction Marian Janusek also questioned the preparedness of regional clerks. Milan Belica, representing the opinion of governors, categorically rejects it.

"The truth is that every single operational program will require additional staff. This is also the case of Ministry of Construction. The second thing is that it is the Ministry which has the responsibility to train the clerks on the regional level. So it is funny when they send audit to regional administrative, because they basically send an audit on themselves".

Jaroslav Pilat is the executive director of an independent think tank MESA 10, dealing with social and economic research as well as with public finances and decentralization. He thinks that both regions and the government should share the responsibility in this case.

"I think responsibility should be divided. Slovakia is now a decentralized state and we have three elected levels. So also responsibility should be divided into these three levels."

The decision over the transfer of competencies is still up in the air. The governors have the silent support of Prime Minister Fico and his Smer social democracy party. On the other hand, the co-ruling Slovak National Party is against any change in competencies because they would lose control over millions of euros. Will both sides be able to find a compromise or will it escalate into coalition crisis? The answer should be clear in the near future.