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EU: Environment Agency First To Admit Easterners As Members

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Formal membership in the European Union is still some years away for the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe. But the candidates are set to join soon one important EU agency as fully fledged participants. It's the European Environment Agency, based in the Danish capital Copenhagen. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at how early membership of that agency is meant to benefit the newcomers.

Prague, 3 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Strolling around the historic center of Copenhagen, with its many imposing buildings, is an exhilarating experience. In the opinion of many people, old Copenhagen presents one of the finest urban landscapes in Europe.

Pause in your tour a moment outside Kongens Nytorv number six. That happens to be the home of the European Environment Agency, or EEA, an official body of the European Union.

The EEA's task is an ultra-modern one. It collects and evaluates information on environmental problems of member states, and makes this material available to policymakers and the public. But EEA executive director Domingo Jimenez-Beltran sees the location of his agency in Copenhagen's old town as an important symbol. He told RFE/RL:

"That's the idea, how to learn from experience, how to build without destroying, and the idea is how to build new things based on new technology, but also taking care of the beauty of the past, and of the capital that was developed by past generations, both cultural and architectural."

In coming months, the EEA will add its own footnote to European history by becoming the first EU agency to admit Central and Eastern candidate countries as full members.

The official in charge of liaison between the EEA and the newcomer countries, Adriana Gheorghe of Romania, says membership negotiations for all 13 candidates, including Turkey, were completed last October. The ratification process by national parliaments and the EU is now in process. Gheorghe says: "Of all the 13 countries, those that have already ratified it are Bulgaria, Slovakia, Cyprus, and Malta, so you might say that if the European Commission might have the agreement ratified, from their side, as expected by early autumn, those will be the first countries to enter. But by that time we expect other countries will have ratified also."

Most of the Eastern countries have been cooperating with the EEA for some time, but formal membership will entitle the newcomers to send a high-level representative to sit on the EEA's management board and take part in the agency's decision-making process. It will also open up job perspectives for staff and experts from those countries. As Gheorghe explains, nationals from the East will be able to compete for jobs in the agency: "It will be, shall we say, a big window of opportunity for experts from those countries to work in an international environment."

The EEA's present staff of about 60 is expected in any case to grow by 50 percent as the newcomers join. When the experts and staff return home, she says, the knowledge and expertise they have gained will be of benefit to their home countries.

Above all, membership in the EEA will allow the Eastern countries to participate fully in the programs of the agency, including the development of standardized "Euronorms" to measure environmental degradation. In this way, a complete picture of the state of the environment can be built up around Europe, and used to evaluate which measures are needed for environmental protection.

Agency director Jimenez explains that the initiative to join the EEA came from the Eastern candidates themselves, and that the Union did not impose early membership in the agency as a condition for EU entry. He says the Easterners recognized they could reap immediate benefits from EEA membership at a low cost. Jimenez applauds their approach:

"Those countries are going to be the ones that have a faster growth in order to catch up on the gap they have in economic and social terms [compared with West Europe. And] since environment is an important factor, I think those countries will benefit by sharing immediately with the European Union countries the information which is key to what we call new ways of making policy."

Jimenez says this new policy approach is based on the view that development must be sustainable. And he says that the candidate countries have an opportunity to apply this idea without making the developmental mistakes which have been made in past decades in the West:

"This is what we say also of the enlargement process -- that by joining the agency many of the Eastern countries will be close to leap-frogging. I mean, how to jump over some of the EU countries without necessarily making the mistakes that EU countries have made -- for example, in relation to transport, or in relation to tourism in some cases, or in relation to energy use."

One common mistake made in the West, Jimenez says, was for cities to scrap their tramway systems in favor of making space for motor cars. He says the resulting urban congestion shows that that was a mistake -- but still one that Eastern cities might be tempted to make. He notes his own hometown, the Spanish capital Madrid, is now swamped with motor vehicles.

In summing up, Jimenez calls the eastward enlargement of the EU the "ultimate test" of the Union's capacity to face environmental problems -- and above all, to implement the concept of sustainable development.

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