EU, accession countries, discuss environment

Applicants warned that failure to invest to meet standards could delay accession

Representatives from the EU and officials from the ten central and eastern European (CEE) countries applying to join the Union met in Hungary this week to discuss environmental investments needed to meet EU environmental; standards.

Hosted by the Regional Environment Center in Szentendre, the conference was aimed at officials from the CEE region environment ministries and focused on accession-related environmental investment needs. Delegates were briefed on funding opportunities, how to apply for them and how to implement resulting projects. Information was also exchanged on changes to the EU's Phare aid programme, which has provided funding for CEE countries so far.

While Phare will continue to finance some environmental projects, officials said, a new facility called the instrument for structural policies for pre-accession (ISPA) is expected to kick in from 2000. This will allocate about half of its Ecu1bn annual budget to environmental projects.

EU officials stressed that accession countries would have to demonstrate coherent long-term strategies and legislative frameworks to be successful in funding requests. A spokeswoman said that accession would only be possible if applicants proved they were implementing environmental investments and showed step-by-step plans to bring in the changes. When applying for funds countries should improve their project preparation and show an ability to think strategically and multi-sectorally.

Countries were also told that they must prove they can take on some of the financial burden themselves through a combination of bank loans and budgetary allocations. Experts estimate it will cost around Ecu140bn to bring accession countries up to EU environmental standards. Key problems include waste water management, air pollution and hazardous waste.

Only around 30-40% of the bill can be met through grants, EU officials stressed, adding that banks like the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development could provide favourable loans for countries to pay for environmental investments.

For some CEE country officials at the conference the briefings were a sobering reminder that EU membership would not come automatically. EU officials warned that countries that could not finance projects should reconsider their target date for entering the Union.

"People don't realise that we have to prepare a really huge project portfolio to apply for ISPA funds," said Alexandra Orlikova of the Czech environment ministry. "The government has to do something."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; Regional Environment Center, tel: +36 26 311 199.

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