Former adviser to EU Funds Minister: 'Croatia is using barely 10% of available funding'



Zagreb, 270618. Markov trg.
Redovita sjednica Sabora.
Na fotografiji: Ines Strenja Linic i Sonja Cikotic.
Foto: Goran Mehkek / CROPIX
Goran Mehkek / CROPIX

Sonja Čikotić

Head adviser of Administration Minister and Deputy Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds in the Cabinet of former Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković, currently MOST MP, Sonja Čikotić is interested in EU projects and funds. When it comes to policies of EU funds, she is quite critical.

How would you comment on the annulled "fastest finger" competition?

- Relevant authorities failed at assessment. Had they kept an eye on interests of entrepreneurs, they would have known that the HRK 53 million, which is one thousandth of the total allocation of the Competitiveness and Cohesion Operational Program (CCOP), would not remotely satisfy the needs of entrepreneurs. The eFondovi application failed as well, with different problems arising for different applicants, which made it clear that transparency and equal treatment were not secured. The fact that the fastest finger was chosen as the only solution after evaluation of applications took up to one year is concerning as well. In the end, Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds Gabrijela Žalac adopted a bad solution - she will permanently ban open tenders. This black and white approach reveals very narrow understanding of the problem.

Why was not the analytical system of eFondovi used?

- I would be interested to hear Minister Žalac explain this. I do not understand it.

Would hiring external associates have had effect on the outcome?

- Not only is the system suffering from chronic lack of staff, but their knowledge in some areas is questionable, which external associates could compensate. However, I can stressed that additional employees were added to the system over the last year, but their knowledge of use of EU funds has to be improved.

The media are abuzz with reports on a new competition after the last one was annulled even though it was completed, but there is no official confirmation and we do not know whether entrepreneurs will have use of Tax Authority confirmation, creditworthiness and earlier statements. How long will people have to wait for their money?

- If Minister Žalac's announcement is implemented, we can expect evaluation of applications to take about seven months. That is not acceptable. Other EU member states process documents in up to 120 days. Some criteria have to be scrapped and others introduced with the aim of making the evaluation meaningful as well as connect eFondovi with public registers.

Even though the Minister said she would ban open tenders, the competition for Internationalization of Business stage two is that type of tender.

- It is important for the Ministry to check interest through eFondovi's analytical tools and increase allocation. We will see whether the Ministry will do it.

Such tenders were launched before. When will they learn from their mistakes?

- The last tender was the third one with a poorly chosen model for allocation and too few funds allocated. The first one was for small and medium-sized companies, for construction and purchase of equipment, which was annulled over unequal treatment of applicants. First we had the fastest finger of responsible person through the eFondovi system, which was annulled as the system could not process that many applications. When the Ministry of Regional Development and EU Funds decided to annul it, the new competition was based on fastest finger of postal worker. That way of choosing applications is not transparent. We saw the same thing in the last tender. How much more money must be spent for the Minister to learn from her mistakes?

You said that she is trying to "cover up" her mistakes with statements about high percentage of approved projects. What does the data show?

- By end 2017, some 7.8% less money was absorbed than planned, while 39.8% less than planned was approved. The data shows that we are at only 9% of certified funds. These are the funds that passed the accreditation system, which shows that projects are being implemented slowly.

Almost everyone is shifting the blame to former governments.

- We are still waiting for the minister who will step up and say: I am at the helm of the governing body, am responsible for allocation and will be to blame if absorption fails. Absorption has failed. All indicators presented as funds that have been allocated, approved, signed on, paid, reported, certified and more, aimed at impressing the public are shown to be false when looking at the chart released by the European Commission (EC). The chart shows the reality of Croatia's absorption of EU funds, which stands at merely 9% of allocation.

Which oversights have you noticed in work with EU funds?

- I am worried by shifting of responsibility for oversights in management of Croatia's central body for EU funds to other bodies. In the EU funds system, it is very clear who is responsible for allocation and control. Delays of competition launches, project evaluation and appeal processing as well as problems with eFondovi application are result of work or lack of work of Minister Žalac. She has to manage the system, which does not mean having her photograph taken at signing of contracts, but taking responsibility for mistakes. What we are seeing is the opposite. She is deceiving the public with claims that this is not her responsibility as the Ministry is responsible for competitions. Her Ministry approves all competitions before they are launched. It is clear who made a mistake.