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20th Apr 2018

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Norway and Poland reach deal on €809m aid scheme

  • An EEA-funded project in Poland. (Photo: EEA and Norway grants)

Norway and Poland have reached an agreement on a comprehensive grant programme, ending lengthy negotiations where Warsaw tried to capture funds earmarked for the civil sector.

Norway EU minister Frank Bakke-Jensen met the Polish state secretary of development Jerzy Kwiecinski on Monday (16 October) in Oslo. Afterwards, he told the Norwegian news agency NTB that the parties aimed to have a final text of the agreement before 25 October, when a last round of negotiations is scheduled.

  • Polish secretary of state Jerzy Kwiecinski (l) and Norwegian EU minister Frank Bakke-Jensen celebrate the breakthrough in EEA negotiations. (Photo: Twitter)

"This means, in principle, that we have found a solution," he said.

Norway is the biggest donor of the so-called European Economic Area (EEA) funds, which are paid to poorer EU member states in exchange for Norway's access to the EU single market, and aim to reduce social and economic disparities. Poland is the largest recipient.

Most other beneficiaries, with the exception of Hungary, renewed their agreements months ago. In Poland, the deal stalled as the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) demanded control over a small share of the funds - some €53 million - that are aimed at encouraging civil society and the rule of law.

PiS was unhappy that this money was used to fund organisations supporting women, gay people and political watchdogs (only an estimated 35 percent of the money was previously used for these priorities), and suggested the funds are channeled through a central agency responsible directly to the prime minister instead.

That would have allowed it to give the money to organisations close to PiS.

In April, Polish government-linked organisations formed a confederation known as KIPR ("Confederation of Non-Governmental Initiatives of the Republic"), with the explicit aim to "bring fairness" to the distribution of the Norway grants.

One of the most active KIPR members is the Ordo Iuris foundation that last year tried to push a draft bill through the Polish parliament that would have banned access to legal abortion.

It launched a campaign against the current fund manager, the Batory Foundation, accusing it of favouring Warsaw-based organisations and "dangerous" sexual minorities while discriminating married people, big families, "people in the prenatal stage of development" and Christians - allegations that Batory refutes.

According to Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, Ordo Iuris has close links to a Brazilian religious organisation, Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), which has been criticised by Brazilian bishops for being too fanatic.

But PiS came to power with the help of such networks and relies on their support. One of the leading members of Ordo Iuris, Aleksander Stepkowski, used to be a deputy foreign minister in the PiS government.

Both sides hail the agreement

It is not clear how Norway and Poland solved the conflict regarding civil society financing. Frank Bakke-Jensen told NTB the agreement will be made public in the near future.

NTB wrote that Poland yielded to Norway's demand that the funds are managed by independent operators, which are selected through open tender. "If there is disagreement between Poland and Norway, Norway should have the latest words," NTB wrote.

Warsaw also hailed the deal as a success.

"Poland will receive €809 million," Jerzy Kwiecinski told Polish news agency PAP.

He added that the agreement would allow electing an operator that was independent of all political pressure to support the development of civil society in Poland, raising questions whether Norway and Poland share the same definition of civil society.

Poland also achieved a result in the talks, in that the money will be split into two pools for the national and regional levels - a proposal first raised by Ordo Iuris.

Batory director Ewa Kulik told EUobserver she could not say yet whether her organisation would seek to stay as the fund manager in the next round.

"I would first need to see the text of the agreement and the conditions guiding the tender, and whether they will really ensure the independence of the operator," she said.

Polish minister of culture, Piotr Glinski, said earlier this year that he "didn't think" that Batory would be able to continue managing the funds in the future.

Hungary

Norway also hopes that the breakthrough with Poland will allow breaking the stalemate in negotiations with Hungary, which are also blocked over the choice of an operator.

"Poland is a significant country in Europe and important for Norway in many areas. When we manage to negotiate a solution and get an understanding of our principles in such a large country, it also affects the negotiations with other countries," Bakke-Jensen said.

In 2014, Norway froze almost all funding to Hungary - except for civil society, which it could pay without passing through the government - after police raided the offices of Okotars, the operation manager. Funds were only unlocked after one year of negotiations, with both sides hailing the outcome as a victory. Hungary said it had obtained the right to veto Okotars in the funding scheme that is currently negotiated.

This article was corrected on 21 October at 10.30. It incorrectly stated that Ordo Iuris Institute was funded by "an extremist sect in Brazil, which was banned by the Catholic church". The Ordo Iuris Institute told EUobserver that it "never received any money from any kind of Brazilian 'extremist sect'." The organisation Tradition, Family and Property was not banned by the Catholic church.

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