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EU: Commissioner Tells Candidates To Take Environment Seriously

By Breffni O'Rourke/Ben Partridge

The EU says it's seriously concerned that Central and East European candidate countries are not doing enough to improve their environments in the run-up to accession. At the same time, in an encouraging sign, eight cities in the region have won EU awards for local environmental protection. RFE/RL correspondents Breffni O'Rourke and Ben Partridge report on the environmental aspects of EU accession.

Prague, 1 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's new environment commissioner, Margot Wallstroem of Sweden, is getting tough with the EU candidate countries on the question of pollution.

She called to a meeting in Brussels last week the environment ministers of the 12 candidates -- that is, the 10 Central and East European countries plus Malta and Cyprus -- to make clear that they must take the issue seriously.

Wallstroem estimated that the total cost of cleaning up long-neglected environments will be some $120 billion -- nearly all of which the candidates must find for themselves.

Despite that, she said the candidates must have the political will to take on board the EU's body of environmental standards, as well as the actual institutions to check compliance.

Some of the results so far are not impressive, the environment commissioner said. And she discouraged the candidates from thinking that they could delay implementation of environmental regulations by asking for long transition periods after they become members.

Wallstroem's spokeswoman Ahren Kilde told RFE/RL that one of the commissioner's key messages is that compliance with EU norms must come early, rather than late:

"Absolutely yes, in the areas where it is possible. And in the areas where it is not possible to actually get these things implemented before accession, well, there, we will have to have very detailed plans for implementation, for when this will be possible."

Wallstroem at least gave some praise to the candidates, saying some had made good progress. However German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin, addressing the same theme in a speech in London a few days earlier, was blunter. Trittin said very little progress has been made by the Easterners in meeting EU environment standards:

"In view of this slow progress in their environmental sectors, the accession countries must be made aware that environmental protection is not just a technical issue of accession, but a core requirement for sustainable growth, and thus for successful accession."

He said environment issues must have the same standing as economic development.

Amid all this finger wagging from the EU's side, however, some encouragement is also being given. Brussels has just bestowed awards on eight Eastern cities for projects aiming to meet EU norms in particular fields. The cities honored include Bourgas in Bulgaria, Parnu in Estonia, Ramnicu Valcea in Romania, Spisska Nova Ves in Slovakia, Svitavy in the Czech Republic, and Maribor in Slovenia.

Bourgas, the fourth largest city in Bulgaria, received its prize mainly for developing an environment information program for its citizens, including a "green" phone line direct to the municipal authorities, weekly meetings with the public, and a local radio program.

The Estonian Baltic resort of Parnu received its award for its modern environmental management program, including air quality monitoring, improvements in water quality treatment, and plans for separation of types of garbage.

Romania's Ramnicu Valcea is awarded, like Bourgas, for its environment information program, plus its efforts to cut traffic pollution, and its successful water quality improvement scheme.

Wallstrom's spokeswoman Kilde says that such awards are meant to showcase progressive cities, as an inspiration to other officials, right up to the level of national governments:

"That's the purpose of the whole thing, to show that these standards can be met in a very practical manner, that even governments in the countries where these cities are located, and also those of other countries, can learn from their experience."

Among the other awarded cities is Slovakia's Spisska Nova Spes, which has a well-balanced environmental plan that includes eliminating mercury pollution from a local plant and building traffic bypasses. Slovenia's Maribor is developing a water waste treatment plant, as well as waste recycling. The city authorities, in addition, have developed good cooperation with international financial institutions to improve infrastructure.