Controversial changes to Ireland's LEADER programme have prompted queries from the EU Commission about the flagship rural development scheme.
In a recent letter to Irish authorities, the Commission sought further clarification on the manner in which the local development strategy would be delivered, and on the selection process employed for local action groups to run the programme.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment confirmed that correspondence had been received from the Commission regarding the new LEADER programme. He said officials in the Department were currently preparing a response.
The new LEADER programme - which is tasked with supporting rural development initiatives across rural Ireland - has been dogged by controversy since the former environment minister, and current EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, moved to give a greater role in its delivery to local authorities.
This has been strongly opposed by those working in the sector.
The Commission's intervention came in the wake of strong criticism of the changed approach on LEADER from Irish MEP Marian Harkin.
She claimed that many LEADER groups were under pressure not to lodge expressions of interest to run the programme so that the local community development committees established by the Government would have a free run in the submission process.
"This process is no longer open and transparent, it is closed and pre-determined and many of the current LEADER groups who are considering submitting an expression of interest to tender for the programme are being put under significant pressure not to do so," Ms Harkin claimed.
"Many of the groups I have spoken to feel intimidated and in a vulnerable position - some groups may have to put their staff on protective notice in the near future."
Ms Harkin also claimed that authorities had threatened to split programmes where there was more than one applicant.
However, MEP Harkin's claims have been totally rejected by the Department of the Environment.
"Any suggestion that this process is being managed in a manner contrary to the word or the spirit of EU legislation is simply untrue," said a Department spokesman.
"We are facilitating discussions between interested local parties, including local authorities, local development companies and other local bodies, for the purpose of securing a coherent partnership approach to LEADER within each sub-regional area. At no stage in these discussions has the Department sought to pressure any interested body not to submit an expression of interest.
"The Government has clearly stated its preference is for a single strategy in each sub-regional area, and we will continue to work towards this objective as the best means of targeting limited public resources where they are needed most.
"We are committed to managing an open and transparent process that affords all interested groups the opportunity to participate."