On Wednesday June 1, the European Commission approved the Polish reconstruction fund, potentially releasing up to €36 billion for Warsaw – its share of the €723.8 billion fund for Covid-19 recovery and resilience ( RRF), despite doubts about his commitment to legal reform.
As a condition, the country must meet strict deadlines for judicial reforms “before the end of the second quarter”, or in less than a month.
Yet two of the committee’s three vice-presidents, Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans, voted against the controversial decision.
Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders and Transparency and Values Commissioner Vera Jourova also criticized the decision. The latter warned in a letter sent to the office of Commission President Ursula von der Leyens that the EU’s credibility was at risk if Poland ignored EU demands.
The high-profile dissent reveals unease in Brussels over Poland’s continued disregard for EU rules at a time when it seeks unity in the face of Russian aggression.
The high-stakes political drama also underscores that the commission has only limited tools to oversee the EU’s largest-ever fund, whose safeguards rest on something perhaps most accurately described as good faith.
Lack of “human capacity”
In a report published on Thursday by two EU-funded environmental organisations, EuroNatur and CEE Bankwatch, researchers reveal that the EU lacks monitoring capacity to determine whether the billions that member states have received are well spent.
“There is a systemic problem,” Daniel Thomson, a researcher at CEE Bankwatch, told EUobserver. The commission lacks the “human capacity” to adequately scrutinize national stimulus packages, which typically span hundreds of pages.
This ends up undermining the bloc’s ambitious biodiversity and environmental goals.
The report covers eight climate-related case studies in Central and Eastern European member countries, almost all of which have already been approved by the European Commission.
Climate goals, the researchers say, regularly come into conflict with the EU’s own environmental goals, which are determined on the so-called “do no significant harm” principle.
In Poland, the commission has just approved a national network of reservoirs, dams, valves and weirs, cutting through river ecosystems.
This is in direct conflict with the EU’s biodiversity strategy, which urges member states to restore river flows by “at least 25,000 km by 2030”.
Other measures, disguised as reforestation programs, instead intensify logging in Slovenia and Romania.
Hungary’s national recovery plan, which has yet to be approved, plans to solve desertification in the south of the country, caused by decades of intensive agriculture and overuse of land, by shifting part of the flow of the Danube to the region.
“[That is] trying to alleviate the symptoms without addressing the causes,” Zsuzsanna Ujj, a local ecologist for Friends of the Earth Hungary, wrote as part of the study, and instead pushed to pump less water and modernize the system. ‘agriculture.
“I think what’s striking is that a lot of these renewable energy or retrofit projects end up harming our fresh water supply and our forests, the two main natural resources we need to fight back. against global warming,” said Thomas Friesinger, researcher at EuroNatur.
Two days for 700 pages
“Much of the commission’s monitoring and evaluation is based on a [forecasts]”Thomson said.
“A commission official only had two days to go through a 700-page document,” Friesingers said.
This lack of control at the outset also extends to what the European Court of Auditors described in October as a “lack of resources” to properly control the money when it is spent.
The EU mediator in February sent a letter to the committee asking how the EU intends to “ensure accountability for EU funds”.
Forged in the chaotic early months of the pandemic, the commission removed the usual requirement for EU funds to include members of the public and civil society, especially environmental groups, in so-called monitoring committees.
“From today until 2026, no one will watch what happens on the ground,” Thomson said.
In a letter sent by CEE Bankwatch to Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis on May 9, consulted by EUobserver, the researchers write that “few” member states have put in place a “real monitoring mechanism”.
The Slovenian National Reconstruction Plan, which was recently approved, even included a hydroelectric dam project without mentioning the name or any details, a sign of a general lack of scrutiny, according to the researchers.
Currently, only one dam project is on hold in Slovenia in a town called Mokrice, near the Slovenian border with Croatia.
This project received a negative impact assessment rating from the Republic of Slovenia Institute for Nature Conservation (ZRSVN).
The Slovenian Native Fish Society (DPRS) filed a complaint in December 2018, which is still pending.
“We didn’t include the Mokrice dam in our research because it’s not clear if this project will be paid for with EU funds; or if it’s even going to be built,” Friesinger said. Euronatur.
“At first glance, many projects may seem innocuous,” Thomson said.
But to help ensure that billions of euros in public funds are spent in accordance with EU rules – and “do not significantly harm” biodiversity or the environment – the public, including NGOs, civil society and environmental organisations, must have access to the plans.