Tuesday, February 27, 2007

EU keeps pressure on Polish highway construction plans

The European Commission on February 23 increased pressure on Poland to halt building a section of trans-European highway in a protected region, saying it was considering “to request” a European court order to halt the project “as soon as possible.”

The commission is to ask the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s second-highest tribunal, to stop the disputed project should construction works have been begun, or to block the works from being started, Barbara Helfferich, European commission spokeswoman told journalists.

“The commission is studying the possibility of taking a decision to go to the court as soon as possible,” she added.

The spokeswoman also said that an EU member state might face hefty fines if it did not comply with the court’s judgment. “We expect Poland to take less dangerous alternatives,” Helfferich said.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas earlier last week indicated that he was ready to take legal action to ensure that no irreparable damage was done. If Warsaw pursued its course, Dimas warned, it would represent a “major catastrophe” for the pristine Rospuda river valley.

On the other hand, Poland announced it will hold a referendum in its north-eastern region on whether to build a controversial road through an environmentally protected area. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said the dispute between the government and environmentalists had become a “national problem.” “According to law, this controversy can be solved in one way only: by asking the opinion of the residents of the region,” Kaczynski told a news conference on February 23.

Helfferich told journalists in Brussels, “In this case, if the Polish government decides to undertake a referendum, we will not stop them.”

Moreover, on orders of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s anti-corruption bureau on February 22 began a probe into possible wrongdoing in a tender for the planned construction. The move came as Greenpeace environmentalists camped out in the protected valley’s snowy forests in bone-chilling cold, vowing to block construction work.

Surveyors from Budimex Dromex, a private company, began initial survey work in the valley February 22 as Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) agents probed General Directorate of National Roads and Highways (GDDKiA) offices responsible for public tenders for contracts with private companies on the project.

Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother, the prime minister, ordered the CBA probe over concerns that the awarding of construction contracts may have been marred by corruption.

In an interesting move, Poland’s First Lady Maria Kaczynski joined the chorus of protest against plans to construct a platform highway through the pristine river valley. “We can’t be barbarians,” she told the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper.

“With all my heart I support the preservation of the Rospuda Valley in a pristine state,” Kaczynska told the paper. “I don’t believe that after construction of the highway it will be possible to restore the original beauty of this place,” she said. “Man cannot recreate this symphony of nature.”

Her words echo those of her husband, the president, who voiced his “disapproval” for the highway plan approved by Poland’s Environment Minister Jan Szyszko.

Moreover, the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has criticised the project, saying it will endanger a number of animal species. “The international transport corridor will put at risk strongholds of lynx, wolf and the most important European Union populations of two globally-threatened birds: the greater spotted eagle and aquatic warbler,” the RSPB said in a statement issued February 22.

Local residents in the northern Polish resort town of Augustow have voiced support for the planned 17-kilometre-long stretch of platform highway cutting through the protected Rospuda wetland to the popular Mazurian lakes resort.

The highway project is also part of the larger international Via Baltica route designed to create a high-speed road link to Poland’s fellow EU Baltic neighbours Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The controversial project has been in the pipeline for more than a decade. Poland joined the EU in May 2004.

The EU had already warned Poland in 2006 it could face legal action and penalties for failing to “adequately protect” its natural habitats. EU Commission biodiversity expert Agata Zdanowicz said Poland had so far failed to comply with the EU’s Natura 2000 programme, describing the situation as “serious.”

The Commission started an “infringement procedure” against Poland in April 2006. This could lead to a court case and the blocking of EU funds for projects in Poland’s environmentally fragile areas. Natura 2000 is an EU-wide programme to safeguard the 27-nation bloc’s most important wildlife areas and species.