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EU Sets Ecological Hurdles to Membership

Prague, April 19, (RFE/RL) - When people in Central and Eastern Europe think about the requirements of European Union membership, they likely focus on privatization, debt reduction, and other economic matters. But another key requirements center on the environment.

The European Commission produced a white paper last year which spelled out steps countries in the East must take before they will be accepted to the EU. Some 40 pages dealt with environmental regulation - more than those devoted to agriculture, telecommunications or transportation. The EU explained this by noting the "transeuropean, transboundary nature of environmental problems."

Among the environmental regulations the EU says must be adopted before membership can be granted are several designed to reduce air and water pollution and to protect natural habitat. Others list the import/export of hazardous materials and waste management practices.

John Hontelez of the international environmental group "Friends of the Earth" notes that the requirements have become more demanding than those imposed upon Austria, Sweden and Finland when they joined the EU last year. And he notes that when Spain and Portugal gained membership in 1986, they were given 10 years to adopt EU standards after they joined. Today, he says, the countries of the East are told they must adopt a lengthy list of EU environmental laws before they are even officially considered for membership.

Analysts say the greater demands reflect the widespread perception that environmental conditions in the East are particularly bad. The Environment Committee of the British House of Commons produced a report last year which concluded that "years of mismanagement and neglect of the environment have left a heritage of environmental hotspots, dangerous leaks of oil and gas and environmentally destructive hydroelectric schemes." It said this mismanagement has resulted in a huge risk to the environment, both within the East and beyond it.

But few ecology activists, East or West, see EU membership as a certain cure for what ails the environment in the East.

Linas Vainius of the Lithuanian Green Movement (Lietuvos Zaliuju Judejimas) told RFE/RL that joining the EU would improve his country's legislative standards on the environment. But Vainius says there is no guarantee the new standards will be enforced because, he says, Lithuanian regulatory bodies are not up to the task. He also worries about the environmental effects of the new foreign investment EU membership would bring to the Baltic country.

Western environmentalists who spoke with RFE/RL also gave a mixed assessment of the ecological benefits of EU membership for countries in the East. Hontelez with "Friends of the Earth" says that on balance, EU membership should improve environmental conditions in the East. But he warns that the EU's agricultural policies - if extended eastward - could harm the environment there.

Martin Lankester with the Dutch-based Avalon Foundation, a group which promotes environmentally friendly agricultural practices, agrees. He says the EU subsidizes its farmers in a manner which leads to overproduction. He says if the same policy is transfered to the East, it may lead to more intense farming utilizing more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This, Lankester says, would both exhaust the soil and increase groundwater pollution.

But there are some environmental activists, particularly in the East, who are enthusiastic about the potential benefits of EU membership. Lora Nikolova with "Ecoglasnost" in Bulgaria told RFE/RL her group believes EU membership would lead to a more environmentally friendly energy sector in Bulgaria - one that is less dependent on Russian equipment and which would be more energy efficient.

Nikolova predicts that EU membership for Bulgaria would also likely require the closure of at least two of the reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, a favorite target of international environmental groups. She notes that several West European governments have joined in the call for the closure of those Kozloduy reactors which Western governments view as unsafe.

Nikolova also believes that EU membership would increase public participation in the formation of environmental policy in Bulgaria that, she says, the government in Sofia has recently curtailed. She notes that within the EU, there are guarantees of public access to environmental information, and environmental assessments are required for many public and private development projects.