Accession countries warned on environment rules

EU looks at imposing conditions on any environmental transition periods for new members

Central and eastern European (CEE) countries hoping to join the EU in the first few years of the next century were warned that they would have to make greater efforts to improve their environmental performance at the close of EU environment ministers' informal meeting in Weimar, Germany, yesterday.

Reporting on the ministers' discussions for the EU presidency, German environment minister Jürgen Trittin said that there was "still a long way to go" before aspirant "first wave" countries such as Poland and Hungary would be in a position to comply with the EU's environmental acquis, or framework of existing environmental laws. "Currently, we feel that the states have set a target that is not appropriate," he continued.

All sides in the debate accept that CEE countries must make a major financial effort to comply with the acquis, in particular in the field of wastewater treatment: urban sewage treatment facilities are virtually absent in many areas. The EU accepts also that it would be unrealistic to expect 100% compliance by any of the applicant countries by the date of accession.

However, this weekend's discussions appear to represent a significant hardening of the EU position that compliance must be substantial by the time new members join the Union. "We could not accept [accession] leading to environmental standards being lowered across the Union," said Mr Trittin after the meeting. "If [accession countries] can join with lower standards then they would have a competitive advantage," he added.

The problems facing the accession countries are both legal and administrative, a European Commission source told ENDS Daily in Weimar. Many countries "simply don't have the institutions to prepare the legislation or to ensure compliance with it," he said.

Ministers discussed possible mechanisms to ensure that CEE countries do achieve substantial compliance in a reasonable period during a brief debate on accession, according to the source. One idea floated was to allow transition periods for compliance, but to limit them to perhaps 5-10 years at most and to attach contractual conditions. One such condition might be that countries spend a minimum percentage of their gross domestic product on water investments, he said.

The source acknowledged that there was a risk that the EU's hard line over environmental compliance by the accession countries could be seen as "unfair," since long transitional periods have been granted to existing members to implement Union environmental laws in several cases. However, the Commission felt that the response to any discrepancy should be to "learn from previous errors" and to look for "tougher enforcement all round" rather than to take a relaxed approach to environmental compliance by new members.

Follow Up:
German presidency of the EU, tel: +49 228 3050.

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