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Eastern Europe: EU Seeks Speedier Modernization Of Agriculture

Although EU candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe are keen to receive EU agricultural subsidies as soon as they join the bloc, they appear slower when it comes to applying EU regulations. Ironically, the EU is finding it difficult to find worthy recipients for its pre-accession aid packages. Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 7 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission yesterday (Tuesday) hosted a conference in Brussels to discuss pre-accession agricultural aid that the EU has promised to 10 Central and Eastern European candidate countries.

Agriculture ministers from 10 candidate countries -- Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- were invited to discuss technical issues with the EU commissioner responsible for agriculture, Franz Fischler.

Pre-accession agricultural aid was agreed on by EU governments in 1999. It will be administered under a scheme known as SAPARD, which stands for Special Accession Program for Agriculture and Rural Development. The aid amounts to 520 million euro a year between 2000 and 2006, and will be allocated among the 10 countries based on such criteria as the size of the farming population, agricultural area and GDP in per capita purchasing power.

The greatest beneficiaries are Poland which will receive more than 168 million a year, and Romania with 150 million euros a year. Bulgaria will receive 52 million, Hungary 38 million, Lithuania 30 million, the Czech Republic and Latvia 22 million each, Slovakia 18 million, Estonia 12 million, and Slovenia 6 million euros. (Figures rounded up to nearest million).

The aim of the SAPARD program is to prepare candidate countries' agricultural sectors for the demands of EU membership. Commissioner Fischler summed up the priorities as follows:

"From this year onwards, we are making 520 million euros, per year, available to modernize the agriculture sector [in the Central and Eastern European candidate countries], to improve health and hygiene conditions, and to attract people to the countryside by providing alternative employment and fostering economic development."

Fischler said the main goal of SAPARD is to help strengthen candidate countries' production processes, so that their produce will be able to compete in the EU's internal market.

Yet even though the European Commission and candidate countries are eager in starting up the program, that doesn't mean everything gets done as fast as possible. Fischler said the commission is still demanding amendments in general SAPARD programs submitted by candidate countries at the beginning of the year. Privately, commission representatives acknowledge that a number of programs seem inspired by local political considerations, not objective need. They refuse, however, to point to specific countries.

Fischler also said candidates need to finish establishing the local SAPARD agencies that will administer the EU funds.

Commission officials acknowledged yesterday that delays in setting up the necessary structures could mean that some countries will not receive the money allocated for this year.

Fischler said yesterday (Tuesday) that SAPARD funds will be administered in a highly decentralized fashion. Once the commission and a candidate country agree on a basic set of annual guidelines, it is up to the candidate government to decide where, when, and how to spend the money.

This does not mean the candidate countries will be given completely free hands, though. Fischler said EU rules will be applied at each turn in the process.

"As far as the conditions for [choosing] beneficiaries are concerned, [they] are the same conditions which we have in place for our own member states. I mean, sometimes in our own member states, there is a risk of bankruptcy or something like that. So there is no difference. In addition to that, we also use the same financial control instruments which we use in our member states."

The annual accounts of each candidate country's SAPARD agency will be checked by independent auditors. The European Commission itself will carry out spot checks to establish whether SAPARD expenditure complies with EU rules.