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Central/Eastern Europe: EU Discusses Environmental Standards With Candidates

Bonn, 12 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Germany says Central European countries hoping to join the European Union (EU) may need extensive assistance in meeting the environmental requirements.

Officials in Bonn said today that the standards of environmental protection in eastern Europe are far behind those demanded by the EU and it was doubtful if they had the resources to make improvements rapidly. The German comments follow the publication this week of a 133-page catalogue in which the EU sets out its environmental standards. The EU's commissioner for the environment, Ritt Bjerregaard met the environment ministers of the candidate countries this week to discuss the standards and what needs to be done to meet them.

"Time is pressing," a German official said today. "The EU hopes the first Central European countries will join the organisation in 2003 or 2004. It does not leave much time to find the resources to improve some really bad environmental situations. "

He said there is considerable sympathy inside the EU for the problems faced by the central European candidates. Many of the worst environmental problems are a legacy of communist planning which took little account of either the environment or the protection of natural resources.

Among the offenders are Poland and the Czech Republic, expected to be in the first group of countries admitted to the European Union. Officials said that in Poland and the Czech Republic "totally obsolete" equipment is still in use in the coal fields and in heavy industry. They commended the Prague government for having taken steps to reduce sulfur-dioxide emissions by 36 percent and nitric oxide by 60 percent.

"However these measures still fall far short of the European Union's requirements," one said. "We have to accept that meeting these requirements fully will cost a great deal of money and most of these countries have limited financial resources which have to be spread over a wide number of problems."

The European Union has around 200 decrees and guidelines on environmental protection. They cover a broad field including water and air pollution, the handling of dangerous chemicals, the treatment of industrial wastes, radiation, bio-technology and the protection of nature.

Every new member of the EU is required to accept these laws and regulations and enforce them in their own country. EU officials in Brussels said today they did not doubt the willingness of candidate countries to comply with the rules. Whether they were in a position to do so might be another matter.

Some officials pointed to Poland as an example of where expectations could not always be met. Poland's standards in regard to water and air pollution are, in some cases, tougher than the EU's rules. However a recent EU report said it lacked the control technology to ensure that the laws were fully respected. Again, the main problem is financial.

Some EU officials point to other problems. One is in that some Central European countries environmental protection does not have a high priority in the eyes of the population. For many, keeping people in work is more important than closing polluting factories.

Several officials believe the solution is to grant Central European countries a long transitional phase after their entry into the EU to meet the environmental requirements.

It is not unusual within the European Union. Several countries which entered the EU in recent years, including Austria and Ireland, were granted exemptions from meeting all the rules immediately because of internal problems in one sphere or another.