Presidency is no excuse for Greece to wriggle out of green obligations

Will the EU presidency give Greece any breathing space as far as breaches of European legislation are concerned? No, we shouldn’t see it that way. What we do before each presidency is try to solve some of the issues. That doesn’t mean you should relax. It might be more unlikely for a fine to be imposed during a presidential term, but the legal process doesn’t come to a halt. Don’t forget that you remain a member state, with all of the obligations and rights that this entails. What is the biggest issue between Greece and the EU? The issue of waste management is the biggest challenge for Greece, as it is for other member states. Greece has a lot of illegal garbage dumps which should have been closed a long time ago. This is the toughest job for the government, to close them all by 2007, in accordance with the new management scheme that it presented. Is it a satisfactory one? It’s not our job to judge the scheme. We needed a plan and now we will monitor its implementation. We’re focusing on the Kouroupitos dump, over which Greece has been fined. Is Greece under threat of another fine over Kouroupitos? By the end of the month, an advance party of inspectors will have visited the area to check up on the situation. Legal redress has been sought over the facilities created after the closure of Kouroupitos, but I don’t want to say anything before seeing them up close. Of course, we demand action. But the Commission’s job is not only to carry out checks but to help. That’s why structural funds exist, in order to create the necessary infrastructure. Our role is to inform the public and to change attitudes. Do you believe Greeks have the requisite environmental awareness? I’d like to be diplomatic, but I feel there are a lot of things that need doing. It is not enough to create a system for separating out trash; people’s habits have to change. Not so long ago, someone in Greece would throw their empty cigarette pack out of the car window without a second thought. You have to start from the beginning, teaching children, raising people who have learned to respect nature. You work with Greek politicians. Do you feel they have the necessary political will for something like this? I think it exists. The situation has improved. The EU, in any case, has helped to promote environmental initiatives and then there is the growing involvement of NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations), which have made environmental issues a priority. Of course, the result depends how deep a public information campaign goes and on how much effort is invested in it. Sometimes, it is necessary to remind ministers that they should implement what they’ve agreed to. Perhaps that’s why we’re such masters at violating regulations. The truth is that the number of violations – though many have been dealt with – remains large. And charges continue to be leveled. Naturally. You can see that as a positive thing, of course. It means that people are more aware and seize the opportunity to do something about all the things that are not right. Huge cost Usually, Greece asks for exemptions and more time when it comes to implementing EU environmental measures. It often attempts to avoid environmental obligations. How will the presidency affect this? Psychologically, I hope it will have a positive effect. As president, you try to avoid asking for exemptions. You want to set an example; you can’t promote measures in the EU which you yourself are not trying to implement. It is one reason for being more demanding about performance. We, however, are ready at any moment to take the next step in the legal process, if we ascertain there’s a problem. That’s what we tell ministers as well. How do they take it? Sometimes it’s hard for them to swallow. The implementation of such measures carries with it an economic and political cost. It requires radical changes, infrastructure, measures and money. It’s not easy, but it must be done. Is the environment a priority for Greeks? Greece has improved in this area. There are reasons that make it lag behind, but now people are becoming more sensitized and politicians follow suit. Eurobarometer polls show Greeks are more concerned about the environment than all other Europeans. That is very useful politically. Has the role of NGOs changed in Greece over the last few years? Of course; they are very active. For us, environmental organizations are very important; they are our allies. Maybe sometimes they are not wholly right, but we listen to all sides. The very positive thing about NGOs is that they do a job. They conserve, they monitor, they help us know what’s going on. Would you say that Greeks are the worst offenders in the EU over environmental issues? I wouldn’t. We have problems in some matters, such as the management of water resources, solid and liquid waste and environmental effect studies. But this is true of many countries. Do you believe that we are ready for the presidency as far as environmental issues are concerned? I’m afraid it’s a bit late for that question. You now hold the presidency and you’d better be prepared. Greece anyway is a very… European country. Are we sufficiently European about environmental issues? I think so, yes. Mrs [Vasso] Papandreou [Minister of the Environment] is an experienced politician and knows the EU inside out. We communicate well with her. What you have to do is to incorporate the environmental dimension into all areas. What are EU priorities at this stage? Climate change, chemicals, water, legislation on objective responsibility (application of the «polluter pays» principle.) Enlargement is a significant factor as well and we must make sure what we have agreed on will also be implemented by the new members. Another group of violators… Yes, of course we will have problems in the beginning, it’s natural.

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