Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 5, 26 July 1999

The European Union and the Environment E U R O P E   A N D   T H E   E N V I R O N M E N T:
A Green El Dorado?

Andreas Beckmann

The European Union is often perceived as a green El Dorado next to its "dirty" neighbours to the east. If nothing else, it seems membership in the EU will mean a cleaner and healthier environment on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But will it? What will be the impact of EU membership on the environment in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and Estonia?

There is no easy answer. EU membership will certainly bring a great deal of positive developments, but also some negative ones.

Overall, human pressure on the environment in Central Europe is probably comparable to that in the states of current EU members, though certain serious problems - such as wastewater, industrial waste, and nuclear reactors - stick out like sore thumbs. The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia are still notoriously wasteful in their use of resources - energy use, for example, is twice as inefficient as in Western Europe - but by virtue of their being poorer countries, they make up for this with low consumption. EU membership will require more efficient use of resources and effective environmental controls. Unfortunately whatever gains are made are likely to be lost as the new citizens of the EU buy more cars, more kitchen appliances and more package holidays.

Scrubbers and smokestacks

The accession states will have to deal with a range of serious environmental problems before being let into the Union. So far, cleaning up these problems is going slowly and promises to be an expensive proposition. Last week, outgoing EU environmental commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard reiterated her concern over the slow progress of "First Wave" countries in introducing and complying with relevant EU environmental legislation and warned that this could seriously delay their accession to the Union. The commissioner pointed to particular difficulties with implementing legislation on urban wastewater, waste incineration, drinking water and conservation.

EU standards in all of these areas are considerably higher than they are in most CE countries. Accession states will have to bolster administration and monitoring, draft legislation and spend money on concrete measures, such as installing scrubbers on smokestacks to reduce emissions and developing waste management systems.

Paying for these measures will run into the billions of dollars. The estimated bill for the Czech Republic alone is between 320 and 400 billion Czech crowns, or 9.1 to 11.4 billion US dollars, the lion's share of which (170 to 240 billion Czech crowns) will go towards improving water quality, particularly the construction of sewage treatment plants.

The EU has already put in place a number of special programs to help shoulder the hefty bill. Nevertheless, most of the cost of cleaning up the Central European environment will have to be shared by the state and especially local government and business in the individual accession countries.

The result of all of this investment will be more effective waste management, less polluting factories, more efficient energy use, support for biodiversity and cleaner air and water. In the Czech Republic, communities will pump their sewage to a treatment plant rather than directly into nearby water systems, as many do now.

Highways and hypermarkets

Unfortunately, other aspects of EU integration threaten to counteract these gains.

If trends elsewhere in Europe are any indication, membership in the European Union will bring with it strong growth in consumption, increasing use of energy and natural resources and greater waste production.

Transportation, for instance, is bound to increase considerably as the borders of the European Union are stretched to the East. More goods and people will travel Central European roads, rails, air and waterways, as border controls are relaxed, customs duties abolished and economies grow and specialise. The increase will further be spurred by massive planned investment (with huge outlays from the EU through such programs as the structural funds) in developing transportation networks, particularly highways and airports. Air travel will jump with the deregulation of the air industry.

The European Union: More questions than answers

This is good for freedom of movement, but potentially disastrous for the environment. Planes and cars are responsible for much of the greenhouse gases (including one-fourth of CO2 emissions) currently produced in the European Union. They are also the main cause of localised air pollution, including 90% of carbon monoxide. Automobiles in particular have a major impact on land use and biodiversity, both directly - in terms of space covered and habitats disrupted - and indirectly, by encouraging urban sprawl. Low-density development, such as the hypermarkets, strip developments and suburban communities that are already mushrooming along the major transportation arteries of Central Europe, is voracious in its appetite not only for land but also energy and other resources.

No less significant for the health of the Central European environment will be the changes to agriculture that will accompany EU membership. Given the slow pace of reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), as well as the major challenges facing agriculture in Central Europe (especially in Poland), it will take years - as much as a decade or more - before farming in the region is fully integrated with that of Western Europe. Current trends in the EU foresee liberalisation of the agricultural sector, including considerable trimming of the generous subsidies and supports that are currently provided to EU farmers. Following current trajectories, this is likely to encourage the same kind of industrial farming, which relied on huge monocultures, heavy machinery and plenty of chemicals, favoured by the Communist regimes which devastated soil fertility and biodiversity while it devastated the social and cultural fabric of rural areas.

A greener EU?

The EU has recognised these and other environmental concerns and has taken steps toward minimising negative impacts on the environment. Agenda 2000, the European Commission's most recent battery of reforms, for example, has added environmental considerations to the economic ones already in place for the distribution of structural funds. Individual projects must also pass a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before they are approved.

Though not insignificant, these and other measures do not go far enough in preventing serious damage to the environment. They have not managed to fully integrate environmental concerns into all aspects of EU policy - from allocation of structural funds to price and taxation reforms - nor have they removed subsidies and included full environmental costs in the prices of resources.

Within the complex political drama that is the European Union, a number of actors have been pressing in the right direction. They have pushed for increased energy prices and taxes on CO2; improved market conditions for renewable energy sources; and prompted more forceful action which will assure that the liberalisation of the farming sector works in favour of biodiversity and the long-term health of the landscape. In an important step toward long-term sustainability, Germany has begun shifting a greater burden of taxation from labour to energy. Some countries have sought to increase the mobility of their citizens by expanding public transport systems rather than constructing more destructive roads and highways. In Denmark, between 1970 and 1995, an increase in automobile traffic of 85% was more than matched by a doubling in use of public transport - not ideal, but certainly better than the case of Spain, where the number of cars grew three-fold while use of railways inched up barely 10%.

Despite such measures, the European Union, according to a study conducted by the respected Wuppertal Institute, is still a long way off from meeting the environmental targets it has set for itself for the next ten years and farther still from achieving actual sustainability. How soon present EU citizens will stop short-changing future generations - or whether they achieve sustainability at all - will depend on the strength of political pressure as well as will for fundamental environmental reforms. The recent success of Green parties in elections to the European Parliament has improved the prospects somewhat.

Long-term sustainability vs short-term gain

When it comes down to it, much of the final impact the EU will have on the environment in Central Europe will depend on the accession countries themselves. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe - not only those immediately in line for EU membership - face a great opportunity to achieve long-term sustainability. Central European countries enjoy a number of advantages over present EU states in this respect. The need for significant social and economic reforms presents an opportunity to set this transformation on the path of greater sustainability. In contrast to most, if not all, Western European countries, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia already have generally well-developed systems of public transportation, compact communities, low consumption and greater store of biodiversity. It is largely up to Central Europeans whether they hold onto and build on these advantages while adopting the best examples the EU has to offer or repeat the worst mistakes of the Union.

One very positive contribution of EU accession that is already being felt in the region, one that could play a crucial role in deciding which path Central European countries follow, is increased space for public participation. At their meeting in Aarhus, Denmark last summer, European environmental ministers recognised the essential contribution that citizens and non-profit groups have to make in achieving environmental reform and pledged to provide them with access to information and decision making. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have already been among the leading forces for environmental reform in the European Union. The efforts of Central European NGOs will not only benefit the environment in their own countries but also, as future members, in the EU as a whole.

Andreas Beckmann, 22 July 1999




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