Czech Republic seeks to bypass threats to major construction projects

Photo: European Commission

The Czech Republic is facing a major problem due to the fact that some environment assessments for major construction projects are up to 20 years old with most of the projects themselves still not far from the drawing board. The European Commission has been threatening to turn off the flow of billions of crowns for projects but a compromise for some now looks like it is taking shape.

Photo: European Commission
It was something of a bombshell when the full extent of the Czech Republic’s problems with environment assessments, so-called EIAs, became clear in February. Around 60 projects were given the basic environmental clearance to go ahead under legislation dating from 1992, long before the Czech Republic joined the EU trade and political block. A new Czech framework for carrying out the assessments according to the latest European parameters only came into force last year.

The problem projects include, for instance, a crucial missing section of the ring road round Prague and a frequently promised but still lacking section of motorway near České Budějovice towards the Austrian border.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has warned that the European Commission’s demands for new assessments could bring major delays and might put around 90 billion crowns worth of EU funds at risk. Most major infrastructure projects in the country are funded with a generous dose of EU funds and start to look problematic when these run dry.

But Minister of Environment Richard Brabec recently outlined how at least some of the problem projects could be salvaged with minimum delays while safeguarding the threatened EU cash.

“There is a chance how to make part of these projects, let’s say 20 percent of these projects, without the obligation to have a renewal of EIA. And we should know by the end of March if we have a chance to divide these projects with the old EIA into two sub-groups. One of them could be realised in a so-called fast track avoiding the obligation to make a completely new EIA.”

There are however some doubts how fast the fast track might be and whether the list of projects that Prague wants to push ahead with rapidly coincide those which Brussels is willing to advance with the minimum of delay. According to the transport ministry new assessments could take up to three years.

Minister Brabec says that officials in Brussels has a pretty good handle on what projects are best placed to proceed because they do not face many legal obstacles or opposition from environmental groups.

The whole episode concerning old environment assessments and even older projects that have not proceeded very far is according to the Czech prime minister unique in Europe and begs the question how so many apparently priority projects got bogged down in the first place and why the assessments problem was not tackled earlier. The government has produced new rules on public tenders and changes to rules on construction permits but many in the building sector are sceptical whether these will deliver the promised progress getting projects up and rolling.