Miffed Croatian region fears unequal access to EU money
By Honor Mahony
For English-speakers it is a somewhat unfortunate acronym covering a dull-sounding issue. But for member states, Nuts - the EU system for statistically dividing up regions - is the key to access deep pots of money.
Regions qualify for EU aid money if their per capita GDP is under 75 percent of the EU average. There are currently 270 "basic regions" in the EU. When Croatia joins next year there will be two more - Continental Croatia and Adriatic Croatia.
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But the country's poorest region is up in arms over the artificial partition.
Slavonia, previously a well-off agricultural region but now with GDP at 34 percent of the EU average, has been lumped together with Zagreb. In wealth terms there is little to distinguish the Croatian capital from other major European cities. The result is that average wealth of Continential Croatia is now 64.1 percent.
"When I go to Brussels to talk about my region. The first they ask is: what is your GDP? We got 30 percent extra GDP overnight. But it doesn't reflect reality," says Stejpan Ribic, director of the Slavonia & Baranja regional development agency.
"We woke up at the end of the August," says Ribic, to see it divided into two regions.
The government, which had previously mooted plans to divide Croatia into five separate regions including one for the capital - has been saying the EU commission would not allow Zagreb region status. The commission says it was never asked.
Ribic, who hails from the regional centre-right HDSSB party, fears Slavonia will not be able to compete with Zagreb. It does not have the money to hire consultancies to make glossy presentations to EU officials.
"Good ideas are not enough. The EU does not pay for ideas. It pays for good, safe-looking projects," he said. Both Slavonia and Zagreb will battle to host, amongst other things, a new university campus and a waste treatment plant.
Agreeing broad priorities for EU money - often a problem for regions - becomes an even greater issue when the region itself is so disparate.
"I would say the clearance of landmines is our priority number one," said Ribic, with 500 people having died because of them since the end of the 1991-1995 war with Serbia. Often lying just off the road, the mines' presence is not only a danger to locals but hinders investment and tourism. "But that's hardly going to be the priority of Zagreb," Ridic added.
"You cannot believe how important Nuts 2 is for regions. It is everything," he noted. He advised regions of potential future member states to "keep their eyes open."