The government said yesterday it was anxious to speed up the large number of European Union-subsidized investment projects with a view to closing the economic gap with Greece’s partners and improving the government’s image in public opinion. «We have agreed on speedier disbursement for the completion of projects so that citizens can see results… The results will be beneficial for national and regional development and will help limit unemployment,» Prime Minister Costas Simitis said after a Cabinet meeting which dealt with progress in the implementation of the mammoth Third Community Support Framework (CSF III) investment plan for the 2001-2006 period, totaling a budget of approximately 50 billion euros. The government earlier this week sought to ward off criticism by the EU’s Regional Policy Commissioner Michel Barnier over its record in absorbing and managing funds from the previous five-year plan, CSF II. Simitis said progress in the absorption of subsidies was good «but could have been much better.» He noted that in less than a year since the activation of CSF III programs, tenders have been issued for projects accounting for 65 percent of the total budget, that funding has been approved for 1,800 projects representing 32 percent of the budget and that about 250 projects are approved every month. «Further acceleration will diffuse benefits to all sectors and the focus, which is now on construction projects, must be shifted to support for small and medium-sized firms,» Simitis said. Economy and Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis said after the same meeting that «not one euro will be lost from CSF III» and that the Cabinet had decided to transfer all responsibilities for construction projects, now jointly managed by the Economy and Public Works ministries, to the latter. Regional authorities, said Simitis, will be instructed to submit binding programs with specific timetables before year-end. Moreover, ministries and regional authorities will have to file binding quarterly plans with timetables and costs. Christodoulakis and his deputy, Christos Pachtas, also said the draft bill on concession agreements for privately financed projects was nearing completion. Greece, Pachtas said, has received 2,860 million euros in EU subsidies this year and «there is no danger of losing any funds until 2005.» He was reported to have disagreed with a comment by Development Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos that «because of delays, we are paying out of own pockets.» Interior Minister Costas Skandalidis announced plans for the hiring of a further 3,500 college graduates to staff central, regional and local authorities managing or monitoring the implementation of CSF III. More than 5,700 staff have been hired or are about to be hired in 2001 and 2002. A further 15,000 civil servants will receive further training.