THE Blue Flag scheme, which polices the safety and cleanliness of Europe's beaches, has been one of the more obvious public benefits of the European Community. But evidence is growing that even its modest success has been tainted by national self-interest. Earlier this month the Tidy Britain Group, which administers the scheme in Britain, accused other European countries of playing by different rules. It revealed that the Netherlands, Ireland, Denmark and France have been given 'special dispensations' to fly EC flags on their beaches, even though they fail to meet the required water-quality standards.

In April the Marine Conservation Society, which produces the Heinz Good Beach Guide, delivered a stinging attack on the lack of standardised monitoring of bathing water. 'What is the point of a law like the EC Bathing Water Directive, if all member states use different ways of assessing how clean their bathing beaches are?' said Guy Linley-Adams, joint editor of the guide.

And last week it was reported that Lindos Bay on the island of Rhodes, one of the most popular with British holidaymakers, had been awarded an EC Blue Flag, even though independent scientific research had shown that it is 'highly contaminated by sewage'. The oceanographer Robert Sheard, who took samples from the sea near Lindos, said the water contained 100 times more bacterial pollution than is allowed under EC rules.

The discrepancies highlighted by Mr Sheard's report raise questions about the Blue Flag awards to not just the 229 beaches in Greece, but also the other 1,200 in the rest of Europe. Until the EC organises its own independent inspection authority, countries such as Greece, which depend heavily on tourism, may be pressed to produce testing results that satisfy coEmmercial interests rather than safeguard the health of holidaymakers.