Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -
Though meant to epitomize the virtues and values of European partnership - both within and beyond the bloc - the development of a comprehensive EU strategy for the Danube region threatens to both test and expose the limits of European cooperation.
The strategy - which will be drafted by the end of 2010 and could be adopted during Hungary's EU presidency in the first half of 2011 - prioritises three key pillars; environmental protection (including water management and disaster prevention), socio-economic development, and improved connectivity (of transport links, IT and energy networks).
The process will involve not only the relevant EU member states (such as Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria), but candidate and potential candidate countries (Croatia and Serbia), and members of the EU's neighbourhood programme (Moldova and Ukraine).
From one important perspective, however, the strategy appears handicapped even begins. Additional financing mechanisms have already been ruled out; any concrete measures will instead have to be funded either from existing EU structural funds or national sources. With the EU's own budget fixed until 2014, there is very little scope for manoeuvre.
Nor will new coordinating institutions or policies be created. As with the Baltic Sea Strategy - the EU's first effort to coordinate approaches to a so-called "macro-region" - specific member states will instead take over responsibility for implementation. It therefore remains unclear as to how the strategy will improve upon existing forms of cooperation, such as the Working Community of the Danube Regions, the Danube Commission on Transport Issues or the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR).
Realising these potential deficiencies, some advocates of the Danube Strategy are already pursuing remedial measures. As Professor Edita Stojic-Karanovic, president of the International Scientific Forum - "Danube - River of Cooperation," a Belgrade-based NGO promoting Danube-centred cooperation, points out: "Countries in the Danube basin have started preparing the 'Danube Projects Portfolio', providing a comprehensive and unique insight into current and planned public and private investments, which will be presented to those working on the EU's new budget for the period 2014-2020. The portfolio will also demonstrate to potential private investors how the different communities along the river are responding to the challenges and opportunities created by the Danube".
Alexios Antypas, associate professor at the Central European University in Budapest and director of the University's Center for Environment and Security, on the other hand, argues that the absence of a new funding mechanism could actually be a positive element because this ensures that the strategy and follow-up actions will reflect the real needs of stakeholders rather than merely being an effort to secure funds. "This will be a good opportunity to further rationalize European funding and projects in the region," he says. "The Strategy can, for instance, be used to ensure that environmental and economic development objectives are harmonized and work to support each other."
Such environmental and economic objectives are, however, in many respects fundamentally incompatible. Though some 12m tonnes of freight are currently transported on the Danube annually - a comparatively low figure when compared to the Rhine - more optimistic estimates suggest that volumes could more than double by 2015 if appropriate steps were taken. But one such step - removing bottlenecks by deepening various sections of the Danube - has exposed rifts between shipping and environmental interests. The latter, fearing damage to the river's biodiversity, insist that ferry-scows must be adjusted; a move sternly resisted by the former.
Indeed, as Professor Antypas says, "some of the greatest environmental challenges will come from the upstream-downstream dynamic... in which downstream countries must carry a disproportionate share of the environmental burdens and risks. The disparities of wealth between some of the countries in the Basin provides additional challenges, as development priorities and pressures differ. A special effort should therefore be made to address the economic needs of the region's most vulnerable populations."
Without significant additional financial resources and new coordinating institutions, however, the Danube Strategy will struggle to reconcile sharply conflicting environmental and socio-economic objectives. In the absence of concrete measures, meanwhile, a criticism that also lingers around the recent Baltic Strategy, the Danube Strategy risks being nothing more than a reaffirmed commitment to regional cooperation and development.
If the EU is serious about fostering partnerships within and beyond the bloc, particularly with Eastern Europe, then opportunities provided by unifying geographies, such as the Danube basin, require more determined and definitive support.
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