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Audit: EU should have been tougher on Baltic pollution

  • Excess nutrients trigger a process known as eutrophication. (Photo: European Court of Auditors)

The European Commission should have resorted to legal action quicker to make sure countries around the Baltic Sea improve the quality of their waste water, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) said in a report published on Tuesday (12 April).

The Baltic Sea is “one of the most polluted seas in the world”, Ville Itala, the Finnish member of the ECA told journalists on Monday.

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  • Satellite image of the Baltic Sea, 'one of the most polluted seas in the world' (Photo: NASA)

“I go home every summer, and when you see the green algae floating, it's not the best way to start your holiday,” he said.

The Baltic Sea is full of excess nutrients, mostly phosphorus and nitrogen, which cause the rise of potentially toxic algal blooms – a process known as eutrophication.

“It's not only dirty, it's also dangerous,” added Itala, who served as an MEP between 2004 and 2012.

The sea is polluted mostly by inefficient fertiliser use on farms and poor treatment of urban waste water.

The EU has several directives in place to bring down eutrophication and the Court of Auditors – which is not a court but the EU's main audit body – looked at how they were being implemented in countries surrounding the Baltic Sea.

The auditors visited Finland, Latvia, and Poland, and sent questionnaires to Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden.

They found that by the end of 2012 “limited progress had been made” in the reduction of nutrients ending up in the Baltic Sea. In some cases, the input of nutrients was higher in 2012 when compared with the 1997-2003 average.

Nitrogen inputs were higher in Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and Latvia.

The auditors also noted that some of the reductions took place in areas that were less under threat.

The Court of Auditors noted that member states, who were ultimately responsible for cleaning up their waste water, did not have clearly defined programmes. But it also blamed the commission, which is supposed to check if national governments carry out what is agreed on a European level.

“The commission has been slow to take action to detect breaches and prosecute cases of non-compliance in member states,” the report said.

It said the commission should have been quicker to take action against Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. These countries joined the EU in 2004 and were given deadlines by which to comply.

The report noted the commission only began formal talks under the so-called EU Pilot system with non-compliant countries “long after the deadlines laid down in the accession treaties”. EU Pilot talks are a procedure that takes place before a formal infringement procedure.

In defence, the commission said sometimes “alternative tools or political dialogue can be a more effective approach than infringement proceedings”, and said its approach had been “appropriate”.

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The European Commission on Wednesday is set to present a strategy and action plan for the Baltic Sea region aimed at cleaning up the heavily polluted sea, interconnect power grids and transport networks, tear down trade barriers and combat trafficking and organised crime along the borders, according to two draft documents seen by EUobserver.

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