Analysis: Central and Eastern Countries Join a Greener Europe

By JoAnn Carmin and Stacy D. VanDeveer

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, April 30, 2004 (ENS) - This Saturday, 15 years after the fall of the communist regimes, eight Central and Eastern European countries and two others, will join the European Union. Reports about the environment in these countries and their legacies of Soviet style communism often focus on “hot spots” and the effects of pollutants such as emissions from brown coal on human health, natural areas, and biodiversity.

As a result, advocates of EU expansion argue that it will promote cleanup and ensure long term improvements in environment quality across the new member states.

The EU will grow from the current 15 to 25 member states on May 1, when Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia become members.


Since 1995 reconstruction of the oil terminal at Klaipeda, Lithuania has been underway, using the latest technologies for transport of oil and chemical products. Special attention is given to nature protection. (Photo by Normunds Mezins courtesy European Commission)
Widespread gains in environmental quality have been achieved in Central and Eastern European countries since 1989. Reductions in particulates, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, and sulfur dioxide emissions - due to economic restructuring and the closure of many inefficient and polluting industrial facilities - have resulted in improvements in air quality.

Newly implemented practices and policies contribute to the expansion of wastewater treatment capacity, reductions in emissions of many hazardous substances, and improvements in the quality of wastewater discharges and surface water quality in EU accession countries.

International and domestic resources have been dedicated to the development of new environmental policies and laws and to the formation of political institutions.


The UNESCO biosphere reserve with hundreds of fishponds near the south Bohemian town of Trebon, Czech Republic. (Photo by Jaroslav Sybek courtesy European Commission)
Since the mid-1990s, much of the environmental policy development in Central and Eastern European states was driven by the desire to join the EU. Membership requires the adoption, implementation, and enforcement of EU environmental framework legislation, international conventions, product standards, and regulatory provisions.

European Union requirements fostered the formation of new environmental institutions and the implementation of a wide range of policies. At the same time, it is also clear that the EU is sending mixed signals and contradictory messages to Central and Eastern European states and citizens regarding environmental protection and priorities.

While there is a stated commitment to sustainable development and biodiversity, the push to Europeanize and foster Western consumption patterns has resulted in more disposable packaging and an increase in solid waste.

Also, while Central and Eastern European countries have the potential to bring a wealth of biodiversity to the new Europe, the EU mandate of connecting East and West with an expanded highway system is placing roadways in a number of environmentally sensitive areas.


A protected bird of Hungary, a long-eared owl sits on a tree in Bekes forest. (Photo by Peter Lehoczky courtesy European Commission)
While EU policies require investment in emissions reductions, they also drive huge investments in roads at the expense of public transport and air quality.

EU expansion brings new environmental challenges as well as opportunities to Central and Eastern European countries and to Brussels.

Central and Eastern European states face a host of challenges related to institution building and the implementation of hundreds of new policies. Such changes must be accompanied by increases governmental and nongovernmental capacity, both of which are variable across the region.

Domestic funds, along with foreign aid and foreign investment, helped to build capacity and generate many environmental accomplishments, but there is still a great deal to accomplish to effectively implement environmental policy.


Workers at the Tovarna factory, which that produces transformers and reactors for low and medium voltage, Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Photo by STR courtesy European Commission)
In fact, many of the older EU member states are also struggling to implement rapidly expanding EU environmental policy. Contrary to commonly held images of Central and Eastern European states as being environmental laggards, the implementation challenge increasingly looks like one that Central and Eastern European accession states have in common with their fellow EU members.

They are all struggling with issues of wastewater treatment and environmental auditing, of impact assessment, risk management, and integrated pollution prevention.

Under-appreciated but true is the fact that Central and Eastern European countries have much offer the EU and other countries in terms of environmental innovation.

Other EU member states could learn from some of the more innovative waste and transit practices and the use of environment related taxes and fees implemented in some Central and Eastern European states.

But for the new accession countries to contribute to policy innovation, the one-way flow of policies and ideas from Brussels to Central and Eastern European capitals currently practiced must be replaced with a two-way exchange.

Accession is about more than just cleaning up environmental damage and the adoption of environmental policies. It is also about the transformation of the European subcontinent and about global environmental governance.

Environmental policy decisions made by a European Union of 25 states and over 450 million people will have ramifications well beyond its own borders. Despite the many challenges associated with the current and future waves of accession, enlargement presents the EU with numerous opportunities to enhance its leadership role in regional and global environmental politics.

{JoAnn Carmin is an assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stacy D. VanDeveer is the 2003-2006 Ronald H. O’Neal Professor at the University of New Hampshire. They are co-editors of the new book, "EU Enlargement and the Environment: Institutional Change and Environmental Policy in Central and Eastern Europe" available in early summer from Routledge.}