25 Member European Union Faces Environmental Challenges

DUBLIN, Ireland, April 27, 2004 (ENS) - On Saturday, 10 new countries will become part of the European Union, bringing the number of member states to 25. Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia will officially enter the EU during a Day of Welcomes in Dublin and across Ireland, which currently holds the six month rotating EU Presidency.

Dublin will host a fireworks extravaganza on Friday night and a multi-denominational religious service Saturday morning. Next comes a news conference with the three Presidents - President of the European Council Bertie Ahern, the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, and the President of the European Parliament Pat Cox.


Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern presides over the European Council as the European Union enlarges to the east, taking in 10 new member states. (Image courtesy Irish Presidency)
In the afternoon the Official Enlargement Ceremony will be held for all heads of state and government at the residence of Irish President Mary McAleese. And throughout the weekend, each of the 10 new member states will be welcomed into the EU with a cultural program hosted by one of 10 Irish towns and cities.

When the celebrating is over, the newly enlarged European Union, inhabited by 75 million additional people, will settle down to handling the challenges of governance, many of them environmental.

Preparing for accession, the 10 new member states have integrated EU environmental laws into their national legislation.

The greatest challenge for the new EU members now is to retain their natural resources while offering their citizens opportunities for improved well-being, says IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

From its headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, a country that is not an EU member, the IUCN has prepared an assessment of what enlargement will mean for European biodiversity.

The total area of the new member states is 738,592 square kilometers (285,172 square miles), which is roughly 23 percent of the original 15 EU states. The IUCN says the new EU member states represent a large proportion of Europe’s remaining natural wealth. "The new members harbor about one fifth of the continent’s forests, have ample freshwater resources, and are rich in animal and plant diversity," the organization says.

The IUCN maintains the world's most comprehensive database of the status of species, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Some 780 European species are listed as species of global conservation concern, the IUCN says.


Two lynx in Romania's Carparthian Mountains (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Of these, 64 animals and plants, including the Iberian lynx, the Mediterranean monk seal, the common sawfish, the Baltic sturgeon, and the Spengler's freshwater mussel, are classed as critically endangered – the top threat category in the IUCN Red List.

Once abundant throughout Europe, brown bears are now restricted to three main populations, in the Carpathians, the Balkans and Scandinavia. The IUCN estimates that a total of 12,800 bears survive in the wild.

The Romanian Carpathian Mountains cover 1.4 percent of Europe’s territory but are home to 43 percent of the remaining bears, 30 per cent of the wolves and 30 percent of the lynxes in Europe, excluding Russia, the IUCN says. Romania is not an accession country at this time, but it is a candidate country and is involved in the accession process. Romania's objective is EU membership in 2007.

Wolves also inhabit these three regions, together with the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. The IUCN estimates their numbers at about 9,800.

Lynx are found today mainly in the Carpathians and in Fennoscandia which stretches across parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Of these, only Sweden and Finland are EU member states.

In other parts of Europe, large carnivores are rare and live in small isolated populations.


Moufflons, the national animal of Cyprus, in the mountain area of Paphos. (Photo by Katia Christodoulou courtesy European Commission)
About 18 percent of the current EU’s land surface is designated under NATURA 2000, a European network of protected areas. The IUCN points out that the new EU member states risk losing potential NATURA 2000 sites, and the species of high conservation value which they contain, due to rapid infrastructure development, the consequences of which would be "very serious for European biodiversity," the organization says.

The marine environment faces similar challenges. In 2003, European Environment Ministers committed to implement a Network of Marine Protected Areas by 2010, but little progress has been made to meet this deadline. IUCN and WWF suggested a stepwise procedure for establishing an offshore NATURA 2000 network.

While Europe borders nine major seas - Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, White Sea, Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea, Baltic Sea, North Sea, and the North Atlantic Ocean - and has a coastline equal to the Earth's circumference at the equator, no official, clear marine legislation exists at the EU level, while a European Marine Strategy is still under development.

Four Baltic countries - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and, Poland - are joining the EU, doubling the number of Baltic member states in the Union.


The small lumber port in Skulte, north of Riga, Latvia. Before World War II a port for fishing boats, since 1997 it has been used for the export of pulpwood to Finland, Sweden and Norway. (Photo by Aigars Jansons courtesy European Commission)
On April 2, all eight Baltic countries approved the designation of the Baltic Sea as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area for which urgent protection measures are needed and stricter regulations will be developed. Some studies suggest that up to 90 percent of marine life in the Baltic is at risk from pollution and heavy nutrient loads.

Three new member states - Cyprus, Malta and Slovenia - join the four EU countries in the Mediterranean, and they too face the challenges of curbing pollution and restricting fishing quotas to maintain fish stocks.

The amount of fish caught in Eastern European freshwaters has declined by nearly a third over the last 10 years, a 2003 IUCN report shows. The reasons for this and freshwater biodiversity loss in general are over-fishing and by-catch; loss of natural spawning areas; and contamination with PCBs and heavy metals.

Cyprus and Malta are the two new member states with the least amount of fresh water available to meet human needs. The IUCN reports that 18 percent of Europe’s population lives in countries that are water stressed. Agriculture puts the greatest pressure on freshwater ecosystems, and the Mediterranean countries of Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece are consuming up to an unsustainable 10 percent of their water resources each year, a 2003 WWF report warns.

The new Eastern European member states have ample fresh water, and some aspire to become Europe's major producers of organic food.

"When new member states enter the EU, they will begin receiving subsidies from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy in form of area payments. Environmentally minded citizens in these new member states are concerned that the new soft money directed for Rural Development and Structural Funds will destroy traditional landscapes, which are 'greener' than most EU states, with their intensive farms," the IUCN points out.

The forest area of the enlarged EU will be about 1.38 million square kilometers (532,821 square miles) of which 17 percent is within the 10 new EU member states.

In the 1990s, Central and Eastern European countries privatized up to half of all forests, and the IUCN warns that many of the two million new forest owners are unskilled in sustainable forest management, and may attempt to gain short term profits from their new properties through overexploitation and clearcutting.


Traffic in downtown Warsaw, Poland (Photo by Janek Skarzynski courtesy European Commission)
All of these environmental issues are important, but the IUCN views "the big question" as how the EU 25 will fulfill its pledge to limit climate change. Under the Kyoto Protocol, all 25 countries have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an eight percent from 1990 levels over the period 2008 to 2012.

The IUCN says the new EU member states are successfully limiting their emissions due to economic decline and restructuring. Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia are leading the way in renewable energy sources as as the acceding countries work towards the target of 21 percent renewable electricity by the year 2010, just six years away.

But as economic growth picks up in the new EU member states, emissions from transport and energy generation are predicted to rise, posing yet another challenge for the enlarged European Union.

No one is more aware of these challenges than European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. Speaking today at the 2nd US-EU Chemicals Conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, she said, "Enlargement is a sharp reminder of why the principle of sustainable development is so important. It gives equal importance to the economic, social and environmental dimensions of human development. Only if economic growth goes hand in hand with social justice and environmental care can we achieve lasting human welfare."