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Socio-economic background: Europe

The most important developments in Europe over the past three decades are the political, economic, social and institutional processes resulting from the strengthening and expansion of the European Union (EU) and the transition from centrally planned regimes to more open, market economy based societies (see box) These changes have had profound effects on developments in all the countries concerned, on sub-regions and on the region as a whole. Although the three sub-regions of Europe (Western, Central and Eastern) do have similarities, there also are distinct differences due to recent and historical events resulting in political, economic and social heterogeneity in the region.

The enlargement of the European Union

For the ten Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries that have applied to join the EU (the Accession Countries), membership is seen as a means to stabilize the changes resulting from transition, as well as a means to accelerate economic development. For all 13 Accession Countries, EU membership poses tremendous political and economic challenges, including harmonization of laws and institutions to EU requirements. Both the EU and Accession Countries are in transition to more sustainable development but with different starting points.

Note: in early 2002, the Accession Countries were Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey

Following the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s, a new era of pan-European cooperation on environmental issues began within the framework of the 'Environment for Europe' (EfE) process. Included in the broader political agenda of this process was the goal of supporting and strengthening democratization, which gradually replaced state socialism in post-communist countries (see box). During preparations for the Århus Convention in the 1990s, it became clear that public rights and participation remained an elusive goal, in many of the established Western democracies as well as in Central and Eastern Europe (REC 1998).