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György Schöpflin MEP on the disaster in Hungary: “Communism as a form of development was always modernization on the cheap”

Actualité 12.10.2010

On Tuesday, 5th October, Hungary was affected by an ecological disaster when a dam holding back toxic sludge burst flooding three villages and the surrounding areas. As Hungary grapples with this ecological threat we asked György Schöpflin Hungarian MEP and member of the European People's Party what the European Union can do to help and how this type of disaster can be prevented in the future. What are the causes of this ecological catastrophe?

György Schöpflin: This event is still being investigated. The approximate cause is that there were cracks in the wall of the dam surrounding the reservoir full of sludge burst. This only tells us the physical reasons for why it happened. We know from experience that a lot of the concrete was of poor quality, poorly poured and not allowed to dry properly. The Prime Minister has promised a full investigation. We will know more at a later stage. It also is seems that the inspections were probably inadequate. These were not government checks, but inspections by the company itself.

TLE: What is the mood like in Hungary?

GS: It is terribly sad. My general sense is that the government acted very responsibly evacuating the population, building dams, preventing the sludge from reaching the Danube but it has been a huge effort. There is a sense of national shock. If there is another burst, which cannot be excluded, the danger of further pollution rises again. The Hungarian authorities are working very hard to prevent it happening again. If there were another burst the concentration of heavy metals would be much higher as a lot of the water has been drained off. There are very serious risks as 500,000 cubic metres of sludge could be released in a second wave from the reservoir.

TLE: How effective has EU help from the EU’s civil protection mechanism?

GS: There has not been all that much EU help. This is not a complaint. It is just that the EU is not very directly involved. This is primarily a domestic matter at this stage.

TLE : What will the political consequences of this disaster be for Hungary?

GS: It depends on how the opposition reacts and if they try to get political mileage out of this situation. The Prime Minister has promised that there will be a very thorough investigation. Anyone who is any way liable or guilty of negligence will be prosecuted. Indeed, I think the director of the company has already been questioned by the police. I don’t know what the political ramifications will be if the opposition tries to say that the government neglected this situation.

TLE: The coverage of the recent events in Hungary has highlighted the potential environmental risks that are present in some countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Has enough been done to help the new Member States up to meet the standards of European environmental law?

GS: It depends what your baseline is, if the year is 1990 the answer is an enormous amount. We must remember that communism as a form of development was always modernization on the cheap. The communist authorities were always cutting corners on environmental standards. Twenty years is not such a long a time to transform this dire situation. A great deal has been done but not every problem has been resolved and some problems probably won’t be cured until the time has come for some of these installations to be demolished. I’m thinking particularly of the housing estates that went up pretty much throughout the communist block during the 1980s. Generally, they were badly built and many are in danger of collapsing. Mind you, the same thing happened at Ronan Point in London in 1971 when a housing block collapsed, so it is also a problem of concrete construction in general.

TLE: What type of European solution could be proposed? Is remedying these environmental questions a funding issue or a gradual process that will take place over time?

GS: Probably the best thing that could be done at this point is to put together a green paper on the problem bringing together a combination of environmental and industrial standards and then to carry out an investigation of the installations that have been put in place in the 1970s and 80s. This is the period where most of the problems originate. Not very many Member States would be happy about this, but the best solution would be to set up a specific European inspectorate dealing with these environmental problems. For the moment environmental standards are monitored by national agencies.

TLE: Greenpeace has claimed that the effects could be much worse than the Government’s version of the situation. Has the Hungarian government released all the facts about the health risks of this disaster?

GS: The government has informed the public of the risks but we don’t know what the medium and long term consequences will be yet. Greenpeace do very good work but they always exaggerate! You may recall in 1991 during the first Gulf War that various environmental agencies said that the oil wells would burn for 100 years – it didn’t last more than 12 months. The entire green discourse is hyperbolic.

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