Accession countries could benefit the European environment

Allowing countries such as Hungary, Estonia and Bulgaria into the European Union could benefit Europe’s environment, and a number of countries have rivers, lakes and wetlands that are more natural and in a better state than many found in the EU, says a leading international conservation organisation.

At the launch of WWF’s Agenda for Accession at the opening of the organisation’s week of EU enlargement and the environment on 1 December, the charity warned against using environmental difficulties as an excuse to delay the enlargement of the EU, insisting that accession could benefit the environment. According to WWF, three key advantages of enlargement are: the richness of natural resources and biodiversity in accession countries; environmentally sustainable practices retained by communities in rural landscapes, not uncommon in these countries, but lost decades ago in many parts of the EU; and the chance to put the EU on a more sustainable path.

“Enlargement can enrich the EU,” said Irek Chojnacki of WWF Poland. “The environmental case for early enlargement is very strong. The environment has been shamefully neglected in the accession debate. Environmental issues can benefit an enlargement process that is facing increasing scepticism east and west.”

Recommendations put forward by WWF’s Agenda for Accession include:

  • a doubling of the pre-accession funding for environmental purposes – financed by redirecting funds used for environmentally destructive programmes, such as ;
  • enlargement must not lead to a weakening of nature protection laws in those accession countries, such as Hungary, where some existing legislation is stronger than EU Directives;
  • accession should be accompanied by the development of new EU policies that meet the needs of the new member states, such as a coherent Forestry Policy;
  • the environment should feature in all chapters of the enlargement negotiations.

“WWF sees enlargement as the test of the EU’s commitment to sustainable development,” said Ferenc Markus of WWF Hungary. “If the pledge enshrined in the Amsterdam Treaty to put the environment at the heart of EU policies has any value it must be applied to the enlargement process. At the same time accession countries have an opportunity to develop their own models of sustainable development.”

The waterways and wetlands of a number of countries are also superior to those in the west, said WWF at the launch of its Water and Wetland Index on 5 December. Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria, and Turkey are also singled out as having less difficulty than expected in complying with the requirements of the EU Water and Wetland Directive, and each has ecologically outstanding rivers.

“The belief that these accession countries have overwhelming problems with the state of their rivers and lakes is ill-founded,” said Bent Hygum of WWF’s European Freshwater Programme. “While blackspots undoubtedly exist, many rivers and lakes of these countries will offer the EU great natural wealth and contribute strongly to the EU’s biodiversity. The Mesta, Rába, Hornád, Hron, Narva, Kizilirmak and Göksu rivers, the Rila, Strbské pleso and Vel’ké Hinbcovo lakes and the wetland delta of the Gediz are among the pearls of Europe.”

All EU countries will have to make substantial efforts to reach the ‘good status’ for all waters required by the Water Framework Directive, but the ecological condition of large rivers in the five named countries is equal to or better than comparable large rivers in the EU, says WWF. In these cases, says the charity, the accession countries would have to maintain their ‘good’ or ‘high status’. WWF is concerned, however, with a lack of assessment and monitoring programmes, especially in Bulgaria and Turkey.

In order to maintain these high standards, and assist these accession countries, WWF recommends that:

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