Scramble for EU funds threatens environment in eastern states

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The Independent Online

Friends of the Earth Europe and CEE Bankwatch published a report and map of 22 disputed schemes, including motorways and dams, in which it claimed that safeguard procedures were being rigged to bypass controls. It argued that the EU risked being associated with unpopular projects if it gave them the go-ahead. The report is likely to spark debate on whether sufficient controls are in place to police the €157bn due to be poured into the countries between 2007 and 2013. Because of EU rules the new member states must use their allocated cash quickly or risk losing it. The document highlights motorway projects in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria (which is due to join the EU next year) for which finance has already been made available by the EU.

It also criticises plans for which EU cash is likely, such as the Danube-Oder-Elbe project, costing €10-15bn - under which an inland waterway would connect central European rivers - and the Via Baltica motorway corridor in Latvia..

EU funding can be denied, or alterations in projects demanded, if there is a threat to the environment, and an assessment is made before any EU-funded work begins. Though these are reviewed in Brussels, the studies are conducted in the member states which decide which schemes to back for EU support.

Ana-Paula Laissy, spokeswoman for the European Commission, said any evidence of malpractice would be investigated. "We assume that all the impact assessments are conducted in good faith to produce accurate and realistic information," she said.

Martin Konecny, EU funds project co-ordinator for the Friends of the Earth Europe, said that "often this is not done in a proper way, the process is rigged and the public is not consulted".

In some cases, he added, investors conducted the surveys creating a clear conflict of interest. Other projects were "salami-sliced" with different assessments which did not consider the overall impact of the work.

Mr Konecny said: "The need to spend all the money [under EU rules] sometimes leads the authorities to to fund all kinds of reckless projects."

Magda Stoczkiewicz, policy co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, said the merits of projects were being overlooked in the stampede for funds.

"If you are a politician in a new member state you want to secure EU money," she said. "If you can say, 'I got millions of euros for this region', that sounds good in your election speech."

Among the projects noted is a plan to move the railway station in Brno, in the Czech Republic, from the town centre to a less built-up zone. According to the document, the idea was opposed by 86 per cent of voters in a referendum.Another scheme identified is the possible construction of a dam at Nieszawa, Poland, next to a protected site. The report argued: "Construction would not only destroy the site but would also threaten three other Natura 2000 sites."