Brussels, 3 July 2001
Pre-accession farm aid: Commission acknowledges "enormous efforts" made by candidate countries
In its first annual report on the aid programme to help farmers adjust to the challenges of EU membership (the so-called SAPARD(1) programme) the European Commission concludes that, "the applicant countries made great strides in 2000 towards constructing systems capable of managing the SAPARD instruments correctly". An "enormous amount of work" was done last year, notably of a legislative nature, involving a close collaboration between the Commission services and all ten applicant countries. Emphasising that the programming and the drawing up of rural development plans was a completely new concept for most of the candidate countries, the report points out that a framework for rural development programmes had been drawn up by all ten states, and approved by the Commission by autumn 2000. The report says that the challenge of building the appropriate institutions, in particular the SAPARD agency, often from a zero base, is considerable. Therefore in spite of the progress that has been made "in certain cases these efforts [made by the candidate countries] are unlikely to be sufficient to allow SAPARD funds to flow before the end of 2001".
Commenting on the state of play of the implementation of the pre-accession programmes, Franz Fischler, Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries said "I know that expectations have been high that the money could flow much sooner, but the steps that had to be taken before the instrument could start to apply were under-estimated. In particular, the exercise of setting up the SAPARD Agency is not easy for the applicant countries. The system is necessarily thorough and meticulous. But as a result, the candidate countries will be in a position to operate the rural development funds immediately upon accession, and with very easy adjustment operate also CAP support mechanisms. So there are not only short-term, but clear long-term gains from this complex exercise. It should be clear that it is the progress made in the candidate countries which determines when EU SAPARD money can start flowing. Bulgaria and Estonia have already achieved this, others will follow soon and unfortunately some might not make it in 2001. Nonetheless, funds committed from the 2000 budget can be spent until end of 2002."
What the report says
It is the first time in the history of the EU that external aid will be managed on a fully decentralised basis, requiring enormous legislative and administrative efforts on both sides. Due to this unorthodox process, there are quite a number of steps to be accomplished - the establishment of the legal framework, the adoption of programmes, the conclusion of bilateral Financing Agreements with the EU, setting-up and accreditation of SAPARD agencies. Given the scale of the task and the lack of precedent, the achievements during the year 2000 are remarkable.
Essentially, SAPARD programmes are comparable to the rural development schemes in place in the Member Sates. Despite less experience in drawing up such programmes, all applicant countries secured approval of their programmes by the Commission, by autumn 2000. This time frame is comparable with that of Member States programmes. The report found however that three measures are dominant in virtually all of them: structural improvements in the processing and marketing sectors, investment into agricultural holdings, and investment into the rural infrastructure.
SAPARD differs from the other pre-accession instruments, PHARE and ISPA, in that the Commission is not involved in key points in the implementation process. Rather, a process of "decentralised management" is used whereby the applicant countries assume full responsibility for the projects. This gives future members the opportunity to gain valuable experience in applying the mechanisms for EU funds, and in building skills and structures that will be capable of applying other EU measures after accession. The Commission makes the decision to confer management to the relevant authority once national structures and procedures for implementing the programme are judged by the country to be ready.
For conferral of responsibility to occur, a process that requires a Commission Decision taken after it has completed a thorough assessment of the structures and procedures, the applicant countries must achieve regulatory conditions in line with those in place in the Member States. The minimum criteria for this includes a well designed system for managing funds, and a reliable national financing system presiding over the implementing agency.
In view of the fact that EU money is involved, and therefore has to be accounted for, bilateral international agreements had to be negotiated with the candidate countries with respect to the proper use, control and accountability of funds. Following the success of these negotiations, signature of the various agreements was able to begin before the end of 2000. Furthermore, as each country must create a body capable of managing the SAPARD funds within the legal provisions negotiated, the Commission found that "by the end of 2000 a considerable amount of work was accomplished by the applicant countries to build their SAPARD agencies".
This is demonstrated by the fact that Bulgaria has received the first instalment of its SAPARD funds and for Estonia this payment is due to be made very soon. The other countries are reported to have made significant progress. The work achieved in the candidate countries under SAPARD, will be of "inestimable value", the report says, "once the countries become Member States".
SAPARD helps prepare the ten applicant countries of central and eastern Europe (CEECs) for their participation in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and for meeting the acquis requirements.
The annual ceiling provided in the EU budget for the SAPARD agricultural pre-accession instrument is fixed at a constant level throughout the period 2000-2006, and must not exceed € 520 mio per annum at 1999 prices. This amount was subsequently included in the financial perspectives for 2000-2006, annexed to the Inter-Institutional Agreement of 6 May 1999 on budgetary discipline.
Annual indicative budget allocations (in € million, at constant 2000 prices)
(1) Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development