EC to investigate Bulgaria over Struma highway
The European Commission will launch an investigation within the EU Pilot to determine whether the government's chosen option for the Struma motorway through the Kresna Gorge complies with the European Road Infrastructure Safety Management Directive.
This is stated in a letter signed by the Executive Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans and the European Commissioner for the Environment Virginius Sinkevičius.
The document lists the violations identified so far in the planning of the highway section through the gorge and strongly emphasizes that the project for the Struma highway should be implemented in full compliance with EU law, including environmental and road safety laws, regardless of the funding source and whether or not a new application has been submitted to the Commission."
Timmermans' letter is in response to a complaint by 588 Kresna residents, backed by the city council, who called for the current E79 road through the Kresna Gorge to remain local and for the Struma Motorway to be built completely outside the gorge. 211,346 people advocated for their demands to save lives, as well as to protect Kresna's occupations and nature through a European online subscription.
The letter from the European Commission once again reminds that the project for construction of Lot 3.2. of the Struma Motorway is in violation of the European Habitats Directive. The document states that after the complaint filed by NGOs in 2017 for these violations, the commission has initiated the two criminal proceedings for NATURA 2000 from 2018 and 2019.
At the end of 2019, the EC severely criticized Bulgaria regarding the Environmental impact assessment (EIA) Decision and the Application Form for Lot 3.2, which made RIA withdraw the EU funding project at the risk of the public paying the price.
For more than 20 years conservationists have been fighting to build the Struma highway so as to preserve the Kresna Gorge. The region is one of the richest in wild plants and animals in Bulgaria, part of the networks "Natura 2000", CORINE and an important ornithological area according to Birdlife International. It is located on the border of the Mediterranean and Central European natural areas, which is why the wildlife here is amazingly rich. It contains plants and animals which are rare for Bulgaria and legally protected.
In mid-January, Bulgaria withdrew the application form for the construction of the Struma Motorway through the Kresna Gorge, but continued to consider the project a priority and did not abandon it. The authorities point out: "The decision does not stop it, but will speed up the teamwork of all institutions involved in the expansion of the only "narrow section" up to the border with Greece. In August 2019, our country applied for 270 million euros, which would finance the construction. However, a reply was published in Brussels in October stating that on the basis of the information provided the Commission considered that the requested financial contribution to the proposed major project was not justified. It was stated that Bulgaria had failed to implement the objectives and measures for the protection of all sites identified under the Habitats Directive, thus violating the same directive.
Conservationists fear that although the government has given up European funding for the problem area, it will not meet European biodiversity protection requirements. All other sections have been built using European funds. A mission from the Committee to the Berne Convention on the case is forthcoming this year. Thus, the campaign for Kresna continues to be one of the hottest topics in Bulgaria and needs an active position at the moment.
What price did we pay
So far, the European Commission has allocated over BGN 1.9 billion from the Cohesion Fund for the construction of the highway. Bulgaria's obligation is to build the entire Struma Motorway within two consecutive programming financial periods - 2007-2013 for lots 1, 2 and 4, as well as for technical studies of lot 3 and in the period 2014-2020 - finalization of lot 3. In case of violation of the deadlines and non-completion of the highway by 2022, the country must return the EU funding for the entire highway.