B. EU Integration as a Driver
27. There have not been official changes in the EU membership status of the Danube River Basin countries since the last report in 2015, but actions toward EU integration have been intensified and prioritized in most of the countries. Out of 16 countries in the region, eight are EU member states (Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia); four have formal EU candidate status (Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro) and are in different levels of accession process (Table 3). Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which were granted the status of potential candidate, have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU that entered in force, respectively, in 2015 and 2016. Two countries (Moldova and Ukraine) have not yet defined formal EU accession steps, although they both ratified Association Agreements with the EU that became effective in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Specific actions taken since 2015 are shown in Table 3.
28. Regardless of Danube countries’ EU membership status, EU accession and integration process has been one of the key drivers for WSS services’ development and policies in the region for the past 20 years. EU legislation, through the overarching Water Framework Directive (WFD) (2000/60/EG) and its subdirectives, such as the Drinking Water Directive (DWD) (98/83/EC) and the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (UWWTD) (91/271/EEC), governs the WSS sector in member countries. It is used to set directions, with time-bound targets, to accomplish full compliance. New EU member states are focusing their water policy objectives on reaching full compliance with EU water-related legislation. Candidates and potential candidates, as part of their preaccession stage and Association Agreements, commit to harmonizing their national legislation and prioritizing sector investments and policies toward compliance with the EU acquis.
Box 1 Albania WSS Sector Strategy and EU Commitments on Water and Wastewater Directives
In the perspective of the EU accession process, Albania has included in its National Strategy of Water Supply and Sewerage 2011-2017 the objective to move toward convergence of Albanian Law with the EU Water Directives. Such objectives include water-related legislation proposal for parliamentary approval to support the WFD, the DWD, and the UWWTD convergence, as well as cost recovery principle adoption. In the 2019–30 strategy, this effort is to be sustained through a phased approach that should lead to the opening and negotiating of Chapter 27. In the meantime, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy and Ministry of Environment have started a close cooperation with EU in the water sector, including an effective planning of screening, preparation of future negotiating position, and use of EU grants, and are undertaking a gap analysis with EU acquis with support from the Swedish Development Agency.
29. Most countries have developed national WSS sector development strategies that include alignment with EU standards (Table 4). For instance, Albania and Kosovo have included convergence and harmonization with EU water legislation as core objectives in their respective national water strategies (see Box 1 for a focus on Albania’s efforts). Official candidate status opens opportunities for governments to access the financial Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA), and for member states to access the Cohesion Fund, both directed at compliance. The strong focus of most of those strategies on EU compliance has led to important sector agendas such as ensuring universal access to the neglected in favor of large wastewater infrastructure investments; some countries are starting on a low point with regard to meeting the water SDG 6 indicators of safe services for all.
30. The European Commission (EC) is undertaking a revision of the EU water legislation, with proposed changes, if adopted, expected to drive more inclusive water policy development in the Danube countries. The Fitness Check will cover the performance of the WFD (including the Groundwater Directive and the Environmental Quality Standards Directive) and the Floods Directive, for which the public consultation period closed in March 2019. Running a little ahead is the evaluation of the UWWTD, which seeks to assess the effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance, and EU added value of the Directive since its entry into force 25 years ago. The related consultation period ended in October 2018. In addition, the EC adopted in February 2018 a proposal for a revised Drinking Water Directive (DWD) to improve the quality of drinking water and provide greater access and information to citizens. The proposal for modernizing the 20-year-old DWD comes as a result of the REFIT evaluation, the implementation of the Commission’s response to the European Citizens’ initiative Right2Water and as a contribution to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposal, which is in the process of being negotiated with the European Parliament, contains an obligation for EU countries to improve access to safe drinking water for all and to ensure access for vulnerable and marginalized groups.
31. Most of the new member states in the region are struggling to reach EU water legislation compliance in due time, especially to comply with the UWWTD requirements (World Bank 2018b). In fact, an infringement procedure has been opened against Bulgaria in July 2017 when the Commission sent a letter of formal notice. Romania is currently significantly delayed according to this schedule, with full compliance forecasted to be reached by 2027–30, far beyond the final deadlines of 2015 and 2018. The time allocated to new EU member states for transitioning toward UWWTD compliance was almost universally underestimated during negotiations, indicating unrealistic assessment of the magnitude of efforts required to achieve compliance. Deadlines for compliance with the UWWTD vary across countries: for EU-15 it was set to December 31, 2005, whereas for new member states from Central and Eastern Europe, staged transitional periods have been agreed upon within individual accession treaties. In principle, however, these transitional periods did not exceed 2015 (except for Romania, in which agglomerations with less than 10,000 PE must comply with the Directive by the end of 2018; and Croatia, which has deadlines between 2018 and 2023). Deadlines have already expired and implementation delays toward full compliance have occurred in all five observed older regional member states (the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Bulgaria) of the Danube region. It should be also recognized that the original EU-15 had 14 years for compliance (the Directive was adopted in 1991 with a 2005 deadline for EU-15), while this period was 11 years for EU-13, except Romania, with 14 years maximum for less than 10,000 PE. Although pending deadlines still exist Croatia (2023), it is doubtful that it will achieve compliance in due time because of the current annual investment and rate of UWWTD compliance.