Five years after the EU’s “big bang” enlargement to the East and South, some wins have been scored for nature conservation in the new member states.
The ten countries that on May 1, 2004 pinned their stars to the EU flag – including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania as well as Cyprus and Malta – are the EU’s treasure troves of natural wealth, including some of its greatest natural forests, wilderness and cultural landscapes.
Accession to the EU has brought some solid advances for nature protection in the countries, but has not been a panacea for persisting challenges. At the same time, still unreformed EU policies and programmes have brought new threats to the EU’s newest heritage.
Over the last several years, the EU’s Natura 2000 network of specially protected sites – the cornerstone of the EU’s system for nature protection – has been extended to include the new member states. As a result, 142,540 km2 (an area roughly twice the size of Ireland) have been added to the EU’s “safety net for nature”, which now covers some 17% of all EU territory. The protective folds of the network cover plants and animals of European and even global importance, including e.g. the European lynx (Lynx lynx), Brown bears (Ursos arctos) and outstanding sites from the Bialowieza primeval forest in Poland to Triglav National Park in Slovenia.
Some of the EU’s new members have overtaken older member states in implementing the EU nature legislation. Slovenia has designated 35% of its territory as part of the Natura 2000 network. The Czech Republic can serve as an example to other member states for some of its management systems for the new areas.
Many challenges remain. While now on paper, the Natura 2000 network is only gradually being put into actual practice. In Slovakia, for example, many protected areas, like the Tatras National Park, are threatened by development of ski facilities and other tourism infrastructure, despite being part of the Natura 2000 network.
Despite reforms in recent years, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy continues to favour industrial agriculture systems that undermine the rich biological diversity. There are still problems with targeting some of the agri-environmental programmes that are specifically dedicated to promoting nature conservation.
At the same time, EU development funds often serve to undermine natural treasures. EU and national safeguards, like Environmental Impact Assessments, which should ensure that environmental considerations are properly taken into account in planning and project development, are often ineffective or poorly applied in the new member states, providing little more than a green fig leaf.
Despite the challenges, there are clear cases where the application of EU legislation has already made a real difference. EU legislation backed by pressure from the European Commission has saved the Rospuda Valley in northeastern Poland. Bowing to pressure from the European Commission and a case before the European Court of Justice, the Polish government has called off longstanding plans to build a major motorway through the globally important area and is considering alternative routes.
Similar conflicts may be avoided in future as the Polish government has introduced measures to more fully integrate environmental concerns in planning for infrastructure developments before steps are taken toward implementation.
“EU legislation and policies provide us with some powerful instruments for promoting nature conservation and the environment in these countries, but not a panacea for all problems – and probably cannot be expected to do so,” said Alberto Arroyo, said WWF’s Natura 2000 coordinator.
Legislation on paper must be applied in practice – and much of this comes down to the efforts not only of authorities and the European Commission, but also and especially citizens and environmental organizations as independent advocates for the preservation of Europe’s riches. Behind the European Commission’s action to save the Rospuda Valley in Poland were thousands of active citizens and organizations that raised public awareness and concern of the issue.
This experience is borne out by the newest EU member states Romania and Bulgaria. In Bulgaria, a growing public movement is actively opposing often illegal construction of ski and tourism facilities in many of the country’s most outstanding protected areas. In January, thousands of Bulgarians took to the streets for a week in the nation’s capital to protest – and ultimately stop – legislation that would have opened loopholes for developers to destroy natural areas throughout the country. According to a recent public opinion survey, 85% of Bulgarians now think that nature conservation and protected areas are a major concern in their country.
Prospects for next members
Many of the countries still waiting at the doorstep to EU accession bring with them a similarly rich dowry in natural wealth. Croatia, a candidate for EU membership, packs an astonishing diversity of natural riches in a relatively small area, from the striking karst landscape of the central part of the country to the marine wonders on the Adriatic coast. Turkey, also a candidate country, is a nature tycoon, boasting as many species of plants and animals as the rest of Europe combined, including many that are unique to the country.
Potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans like Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro host important freshwater ecosystems, including the most extended network of subterranean rivers and lakes in Europe, alluvial forests and wetlands of international importance, such as the Neretva delta (Bosnia and Herzegovina/Croatia), and Skadar/Shkodra Lake (Montenegro/Albania).
Preparation for implementation of EU nature conservation legislation and policies is in full swing in most countries. Croatia is already well on its way to bringing a large part of its natural treasures into the Natura 2000 network, and Serbia is just beginning a major EU-financed project to prepare the country for the legislation.
If the experience of past new member states is an indication, holding onto these treasures will require not only the committed application of key EU legislation, e.g. related to the Natura 2000, but also further reforms of EU policies and programmes, including the Common Agricultural Policy and the Regional Funds.
The best opportunity for implementing these reforms is coming up with the programming for the next financial period, 2013-20, which is already getting underway. It will be essential to ensure that environment and nature conservation are fully and effectively integrated into the new policies – and then also applied in actual practice.
For many of Europe’s greatest natural treasures, the EU still holds much promise – and threat.
Andreas Beckmann is Deputy Director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme