Enlargement talks to begin next year

Screening reveals "too many" areas still need attention before negotiations on transition periods

Political negotiations to decide whether former communist countries in the east will be allowed to join the EU without meeting all its environmental standards will begin next year, acting environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said this weekend.

The commissioner was speaking at a press conference after an informal meeting in Helsinki between environment ministers from central and eastern European countries and their counterparts from EU member states. The announcement that the talks will start under the Portuguese presidency of the EU will disappoint countries which had hoped to begin the process this year under the auspices of the Finnish presidency, perceived as more sympathetic to an earlier enlargement of the union.

One candidate country delegate told ENDS Daily that the meeting had been a "last chance" to influence the European Commission's thinking on enlargement before the negotiations begin. A crucial question is whether the EU will allow countries "transition periods" to achieve substantive compliance with EU standards in the demanding areas of drinking water, sewage treatment and waste management, and if so, how long these periods will be.

Although all hope to be members of the union within four years, several have admitted that compliance with legislation in these areas may require periods of up to a decade after joining if they are admitted by that time. According to Ms Bjerregaard, countries would be refused requests for transition periods if they were not accompanied by detailed funding and work programmes designed to achieve the standards.

Reiterating the "grave concerns" she expressed last month over the countries' ability even to adopt all the EU's environmental legislation into national law, the commissioner said the screening process undertaken to highlight the most serious problems had revealed "too many" areas in the eleven countries which had not received attention (ENDS Daily 19 July).

Poland, she said, was "still lacking any strategy" for accession and faced "big challenges" in many areas, while Estonia had difficulties with nature protection and the Czech Republic with industrial discharges. Some countries nominally in the "second wave" of prospective EU entrants had made more progress than those at the head of the queue, she said. Speaking to ENDS Daily at the weekend, Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko said he had not heard the commissioner's comments but stressed a failure to fulfil environmental criteria in the past had not prevented countries such as Spain, Greece and Ireland from joining the union.

Follow Up:
Finnish Presidency, tel: +358 205 1999.

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