Novi Sad, Serbia © Mirko Kuzmanovic/Shutterstock

Novi Sad, Serbia © Mirko Kuzmanovic/Shutterstock

The management of European funds is an often complex task that requires specific administrative and technical-financial skills. For accession countries such as Serbia, preparation to the negotiation stage is key

02/02/2024 -  Serena Epis

On its path to EU membership, Serbia must comply with the European norms and policies enshrined in the 35 negotiating chapters. Among these, Chapter 22 is dedicated to regional policy and includes a set of regulations with guidelines for the elaboration and implementation of national programmes for the management of structural and cohesion funds, resources that will only be available to Serbia upon EU membership.

During the first edition of the project 'Exchange Programme on Chapter 22 of the aquis', in the spring of last year, Issirfa experts, accompanied by OBCT, promoted a series of trainings involving different representatives of institutions involved in the management of European funds, including the Ministry for European Integration (MEI) and the Fund for European Affairs of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.

One of the main objectives for Serbia at this stage is certainly the need to strengthen the administrative capacities of the relevant institutions, especially in terms of staff with appropriate financial management skills. As a former officer of the Fund for European Affairs of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, met in Novi Sad last May, explained: 'Preparation is key: we often talk about the capacity to absorb funds, even among member states, so it is important to invest in capacity-building especially in the pre-accession phase and at all levels, not just the central one”.

A crucial challenge in this regard concerns retaining qualified staff within administrations: 'There is a large turnover in the public sector. Salaries are low, so people move quickly from one job to another. If someone has experience, they do not stay in the government or provincial institutions for long, and this prevents us from having what we can call 'institutional memory''. A problem, that of personnel, also recognised and highlighted by the European Commission in its latest progress report on the accession negotiations published last November.

Although Serbia does not currently have access to the cohesion fund, it already participates in several European territorial cooperation programmes, currently funded by the Instrument for Pre-Accession 2021-2027 (IPA III), which over the years has enabled the country to acquire experience and skills that will be useful for the future management of European cohesion funds.

The value added of these programmes can be found first and foremost in the collaborative relationships that are created between neighbouring areas of two or more countries in the search for common solutions to issues of mutual interest, e.g. in the fields of environmental protection, healthcare, education, tourism, transport, and cultural promotion: “We always try to nurture cooperation because we always take something (important) away with us; often our partners from other countries have different ways of approaching the same problem and for us it is very useful to have an alternative perspective. In addition, the projects allow us to buy specific equipment and make small structural investments the benefits of which last in the long run”.

On the other hand, a rather delicate point concerns the visibility that European funds have not only among professionals but above all among the population at large; projects and the resulting benefits are rarely directly linked to the EU and the integration process: “Even though all programmes provide for exact rules to guarantee the visibility of the European donor, citizens often do not know that European funds are behind a given project and most of them continue to think that the bulk of the funding comes from Russia”, explained our interlocutor from Novi Sad.

A challenge, that of communication, which remains central, especially in such a sensitive historical period as the current one, in which support for the European integration process, especially among the Serbian population, continues to shrink.


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