As a civil society organisation operating across central and eastern Europe, Bankwatch views its role as a watchdog on how effectively the EU funds are being spent in our countries seriously – with billions of euros on the line, we need to ensure that spending decisions are taken democratically, with transparency to the fore and with stakeholders having a real say in how scarce public investment money is being deployed.
To achieve these ends, our member groups around the region are active in EU funds participative processes such as consultations and dialogue with partners during the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects financed by EU funds. Guiding all of this, the legally binding European Code of Conduct on Partnership (ECCP) lays down the standards for the involvement of various NGO partners. The ECCP also facilitates the sharing of information, experience, results and good practices for the current 2014-20 programming period.
Mindful of the ECCP’s importance and centrality to the 2014-20 period, Bankwatch regularly assesses its implementation in central and eastern European member states. This spring, in the middle of the programming period (and mid-term review), we asked environmental and – where available – social NGO delegates from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia to provide their assessments of the state of play with the ECCP.
Read the report:
EU funds briefing: implementation of the partnership principle
Briefing | August 29, 2017
The assessments were based on a standardised questionnaire, and the main findings were the following:
1. The level of involvement of NGO delegates in EU funds programming
- Across the board, NGO partner representation in EU funds monitoring committees has been formally accomplished.
- The selection of delegates from environmental groups is organised in different ways, with umbrella organisations playing a crucial role. Adequate representation and thematic coverage are not always guaranteed, though.
- When formulating their own rules of procedure, monitoring committees only formally took account of some of the provisions laid down in the ECCP.
2. NGO access to information, influence
- Information flows between managing authorities (MAs) and monitoring committee (MC) members are often lacking and need to be made smoother. Even though the required timing (10 days for consultation) tends to be met, the reality is that procedural constraints make it difficult to establish and maintain a coordinated, working collaboration between NGO partners and Mas, or between partners.
- The procedures and rules of the MC provide NGOs with only a limited opportunity to influence. The main problems are that governmental/authority representatives outnumber NGO representatives, and that government decisions are sometimes made before consultation within the MC, especially when it comes to major or priority projects. A further challenge is that efforts to provide effective input (including the production of detailed NGO papers, the forming of coalitions or stimulating public debate) requires significant time and capacity from the NGO side, yet capacity building opportunities provided by the MAs are limited. Some improvements in this regard have, however, been seen: including the new Slovak law for a more balanced voting system, and the Latvian practice whereby MC members become state officials.
- Preparatory documents and minutes for MCs are not equally publicly accessible across the countries surveyed.
3. NGO involvement during implementation (calls, progress reports and evaluation, and monitoring)
- Regarding NGO influence, relatively belated or unsatisfactory involvement of partners has been encountered during the preparation of calls for proposals. Early involvement took place only in Slovakia.
- Insufficient consideration by MAs of environmental partners’ recommendations was commonplace, particularly regarding the integration of sustainability into the selection criteria of calls for proposals.
- MAs do not tend to involve environmental NGOs during assessment of project proposals, particularly when it comes to the horizontal integration of sustainability into project selection.
- NGO partners are involved in commenting on the largely statistical, uncontroversial progress reports developed by MAs only belatedly – thus the potential to provide meaningful, expert input is limited. Based on previous experience, too, the same applies to monitoring/evaluation.
- Potential conflicts of interest related to project selection are not being adequately dealt with or resolved.
4. Strengthening the institutional capacity of NGO partners
- There is no standardised approach to ensure capacity building for relevant partners, especially for environmental NGOs hoping to achieve the horizontal integration of sustainability into the EU funds, or for key thematic areas such as low-carbon development, climate change and environmental protection.
- Where established, systemic capacity building efforts are rather fragmented and do not fully meet the needs of NGO delegates: while travel and other direct expenses may be reimbursed, nevertheless crucial elements recommended by the ECCP for strengthening the institutional capacity of partners tend to be lacking. There is often a lack of understanding by MAs concerning which capacity building costs are eligible under the available ‘technical assistance; funding.
Based on our assessment, Bankwatch recommends the following to EU decision makers:
- In order to improve the implementation of the European Code of Conduct on Partnership, and to fully realise the benefits of efficient partnership, further efforts are needed by MAs to enable timely access to all relevant information, to enhance the involvement of NGO delegates in strategic discussions and decision-making processes, and increase the capacity of stakeholders.
- More support is needed to strengthen partners’ institutional capacity and their ability to deal with the workload. Such support could take the form of better access to external expert assistance, the establishment of permanent MC secretariats which are independent of the MAs, and, possibly, a mechanism to disburse per diems to those Committee members who are engaged in addition to their normal duties. The European Commission (DG Regio) could also consider a financing framework for national watchdog experts, to come from technical assistance budget lines.
- The widely-experienced imbalance in voting rights should also be addressed because, in the current setup, governmental parties can always outvote civil society parties, and it entirely depends on the MA whether it takes civil society comments or recommendations into account, chooses to discard them without due consideration or explanation. The amendment to Law no. 292/2014, on the contribution from the European structural and investment funds, in Slovakia provides an important example – and precedent – of how to address this issue in other countries.
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