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Central/Eastern Europe: Environmental Issues Present EU Membership Hurdle

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Growth of environmental awareness stands as one of the significant changes in world opinion during the second half of this century.

Since the 1960s, a growing body of thought centered in the United States and West Europe has begun to demand of politicians that they place new emphasis on clean air, water and soil, and the preservation of nature.

This growth wasn't achieved quietly. Demonstrations, large and small, have been a fixture of the environment movement. In one 1971 demonstration in London, seven activists in gas masks marched down a main street demanding cleaner air. In West Germany during the 1980s, thousands of opponents of nuclear energy fought pitched battles with hundreds of police at power station sites, sometimes with fatalities.

Gradually, mainline political parties and industry worldwide moved to include, rather than exclude, environmental concerns. Thus the movement gradually shed its radical image and reached middle ground.

In the communist countries -- because of pervasive controls over information and independent action -- awareness grew more slowly. But it did grow, and since the fall of the old communist order such concerns have found free expression in those countries also.

Now 10 Central and East European countries are candidates to join the European Union, and one of the key demands from the EU is that the applicant countries meet its environmental standards in order to qualify. That won't be cheap. The EU estimates that needed improvements across the 10 will cost $130 billion.

The four main areas for action are water, air, energy and waste management. Water and air quality will have to reach norms set by the EU. Pollution caused by energy consumption will have to be lowered. Comprehensive programs for disposal of wastes, including hazardous wastes, will have to be developed or improved.

A senior EU official in Brussels who is closely involved with the accession process says that the EU does not want the Eastern applicants merely to harmonize, on paper, their laws with the EU requirements. They must create concrete administrative structures and develop monitoring agencies.

Meanwhile, the EU continues to develop what the official called a fine-grained picture of environmental problems in the 10 applicant countries. Where Hungarian domestic water supplies are below standard, they will have to be improved. Where there are hot-spot areas of high background radiation in the Czech Republic, they will have to be cleaned up. Where a factory pollutes the air in Slovenia, it will have to reduce emissions. Cars in all countries will have to meet strict EU emission norms.

The EU is adamant that the right conditions must be met by each applicant -- but not necessarily from the first day of membership. Where there are particular problems in a given country which cannot be solved in time, an extra transition period can be negotiated.

Critics say that the EU is setting a high hurdle for newcomers, considering the neglected state of the environment in all the applicant states. The established EU states have it generally easier, considering they've had decades to move toward higher environmental goals. Critics would also say that while Brussels issues a stream of directives on the environment as on other topics, not all present member states are observing these rules scrupulously.

EU officials say they are aware of this, but they note that the EU is getting more powers to enforce its rules. A recently enacted provision empowers the EU to take legal action against countries in breach of standards, that could result in millions of dollars a day in fines. Officials say this should make countries more eager to comply.

(This is the first of a five-part series dealing with environmental issues in Europe, East and West. Subsequent articles focus on nuclear energy, ocean dumping and clean rivers.)