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EU Danube Strategy: Economic promotion yes, but not at the cost of the Danube’s ecosystem

Submitted by on 14 Apr 2011 – 15:21

By Barbara Lochbihler, member of the European Parliament, Greens/EFA

The Danube region covers one fifths of the EU territory and embodies a significant historical bond between western and eastern Europe, connecting different cultures within and outside of the EU. It is of huge economic importance for millions of Europeans, but also offers a unique ecological diversity.

To make use of the region’s potential, the European Commission launched, in December 2010, an EU Danube Strategy, scheduled to be endorsed by Member States in the first half of 2011, under Hungarian presidency, and implemented thereafter. By adopting an integrated and coordinated approach to sustainable development on a broader regional territorial level, the Strategy opens up new perspectives for economic growth and cooperation, while setting out a more efficient use of the Danube region’s immense opportunities of natural development and conservation. According to the Strategy, the EU wishes to achieve a liveable, sustainable and prosperous Danube region, while protecting the region’s nature and biodiversity. As regards these objectives, the Commission has my full support.

Yet, when it comes to more concrete measures, the Danube Strategy turns out to suffer from an obvious lack of coherence. For instance, the Strategy officially implies several forms of cross-border cooperation, aimed at integrating different sub-regions and excluded communities, and at catalysing local and regional development needs by contributing to the creation of strong cross-border relations. However, regional and local stakeholders of the Danube region risk to be largely excluded from various decision-making processes, which clearly contradicts the noble initial objective.

Similarly, the Strategy officially aims at managing environmental risks such as floods and industrial pollution, at preserving the quality and quantity of water reserves, and at protecting biodiversity, landscapes and the quality of air and soils. On the other hand, it announces a twenty-percent increase in freight transportation by 2020, and stipulates that existing bottlenecks (including one between Straubing and Vilshofen in my native Bavaria) should be removed, in order to allow vessels of type VIb to navigate the Danube all year round. This would seriously alter the natural flow of the Danube, however, and further endanger the sensitive ecosystem. Thus, there is a clear contradiction between the different Strategy targets. Given that implementation is drawing near, it is high time to tackle these incoherencies, and see to it that the region’s rich biodiversity will be properly protected.

To do so, it is crucial to make use of all existing technological possibilities. It is true that, at first sight, it might look easier and financially more interesting to adapt the river to navigation needs. As soon as we also consider social and natural costs, though, fitting the ships to the river by far outweighs this first solution. Indeed, this would still allow for an increase in navigability, but by putting more emphasis on the construction of adapted vessels and other technological innovations, the Strategy’s impact on the environment could be minimised.

Neither would such an ecosystem-based approach of the Danube Strategy exclude economic growth opportunities. All to the contrary, green technologies and ecological modernisation (such as improved energy efficiency and waste management) can directly contribute to the economic development of the region, while reducing the negative environmental impact of economic activity. If implemented correctly – which, given the contradictions of the Strategy, may be considered a huge ‘if’ – the Danube Strategy would help promote a dynamic green economy, both nationally and via cross-border industrial cooperation projects. Likewise, it would further sustainable tourism, which represents an ever-growing economic factor in the region.

Healthy ecological conditions are a prerequisite for all human activities along the Danube. Realising economic objectives without respecting the environment would therefore be short-sighted. The environment has to remain a priority, and the contradictions of the Strategy need to be resolved – not to replace economic promotion with environmental protection, but to combine the two in a balanced implementation of the Strategy. Also, cross-border dialogue should be advanced and relevant stakeholders included in all decision-making processes, in order to foster cross-regional development, while fighting social and economic exclusion of marginalised communities, especially Roma.

According to the European Commission, the EU Danube Strategy has been defined as an open and flexible ‘rolling plan’. It is therefore not too late to guarantee an implementation that is both economically and ecologically sustainable. Only if we adopt an ecosystem-based approach, can it be avoided that short-term economic objectives once again serve as a justification for the long-term loss of biodiversity and opportunities in the field of a greener and more cooperative economy. As the present article suggests, possible solutions to the existing problems exist. It is only a matter of political will.