Environment targets for applicant states end up as an exercise in reality

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Series Details Vol.7, No.23, 7.6.01, p16
Publication Date 07/06/2001
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Date: 07/06/01

By Gareth Harding

LISTENING to candidate country negotiators these days is a bit like eavesdropping on third-form literature students frantically trying to finish a novel they are about to be quizzed on. "How many chapters have you finished?" asks one. "Twelve, but they were the easy ones," comes the reply.

So far, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia and the Czech Republic are the only states to have completed the environment chapter of arguably the world's most boring book: the Acquis Communautaire. They managed to do this so quickly because the European Commission has proved to be a more lenient examiner than many central and eastern European pupils feared.

A year ago, the EU's top environment teacher Margot Wallström was wagging her finger at wayward students like the Czech Republic and Poland for failing to do their homework on time. But now Günter Verheugen, her colleague in charge of expanding student numbers, is telling the wannabe members that they can hand in some of their exercises late as long as they show willingness to complete the course. "On environment, financially and technically the changes cannot be done overnight. If you say no to transition periods you're saying no to accession before 2010," he says.

Anyone who has read the Commission's Agenda 2000 enlargement blueprint knows that the Union was always going to have to confect some fudge to reconcile two opposing factors. On the one hand, the bloc has a political commitment to let the first applicant states into the EU in the short to medium term. On the other, adopting and implementing the Union's 300 environmental laws was always going to be a medium to long-term mission.

In time-honoured tradition, the Commission has got around this conundrum by allowing transition periods. So Slovenia and the other three states will be allowed extra time to meet exacting Union standards on packaging waste, sewerage treatment and oil reserves and other candidate countries are likely to be granted similar periods of grace.

Given the massive cost of implementing EU environmental laws - conservatively estimated at €120 billion - it is only natural that central and eastern European countries should be allowed extra time.

Officials in Brussels have also understood that it is difficult to scold candidate countries for not implementing legislation when most current member states have such huge problems doing so.

But the director of the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán, believes that enlargement should not just be a painting-by-numbers exercise, but should be used as an opportunity to sketch out a new landscape in the former Soviet bloc. "If we just take compliance as a goal, the natural heritage of these countries will go down the drain," Beltrán told European Voice. The Spaniard says that enlargement provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the would-be members to avoid making the same mistakes as western European countries and to "leapfrog" into an era of sustainability.

Article forms part of a survey on enlargement.

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