Press release: 24 February 2021

European Commission urged to take Hungary to task for failing to protect its Great Lakes

21 organisations from 12 countries are calling on the European Commission to take legal action against the Hungarian authorities. The government’s approval of large-scale tourism infrastructure projects threatens the iconic Lake Balaton and three other protected freshwater lakes.

In a letter sent today to the European Commission, nature protection experts have put Hungary’s authorities on the spot for finding ways to greenlight large-scale tourism infrastructure investments affecting Lake Balaton, Lake Fertő, Tata Old Lake and Lake Velence. 

The Hungarian Great Lakes are rich freshwater habitats, providing home and refuge to a vast number of protected bird species. In recognition of their importance for nature conservation, the lakes are protected by international and European law as Ramsar and Natura 2000 sites.

The problem was first flagged in September 2019, when the Commission received a complaint regarding a planned construction project in a protected nature reserve, certified by the EU as a Natura 2000 site, at Fertö Lake. It highlighted serious problems with Hungarian authorities introducing “exceptional” regulations to bypass the legal requirements for proper environmental assessment and public participation.

Hungarian environmentalist and co-author of the complaint, Zoltan Kun, said: “Tourism is very important for the economy, but it needs to be developed in harmony with nature. The facility at Fertő lake destroys natural heritage without having an overriding social or economic justification. If you build facilities for tourists, but you destroy what they've come to see, then you'll be investing huge funds in these infrastructure projects for nothing.”

ClientEarth lawyer Ewelina Tylec-Bakalarz said: “The legal problem is twofold: first and foremost, massive tourism facilities are being developed without properly assessing their impact on protected sites, as required by EU law. To make things worse, Hungarian authorities have been passing regulations that make it easier to obtain a permit for large projects and prevent non-governmental organisations from taking action to protect the environment from harmful investments.”

A growing body of Hungarian legislation allows administrative procedures to be fast-tracked for an ever-expanding catalogue of economic activities and construction projects. These regulations simplify environmental assessment procedures and make it near-impossible for interested persons and organisations to take part in the planning process.

Ms Tylec-Bakalarz concluded: “We hope that our letter will be the final straw, convincing the Commission to open an infringement procedure against Hungarian government. The complaint from 2019 refers only to Lake Fertő, but decisive action from the Commission may bring stronger protection to all the lakes”.


Notes to editors:
  • Open letter of the NGOs to the European Commission available here.
  • The signatories: Agent Green, ARA, ClientEarth, Climate Alliance Hungary, EuroNatur, Friends of the Earth Europe, Friends of the Earth Hungary, Friends of Fertő lake, Freunde des Neusiedlersee, Fundatia Conservation Carpathia, Greenpeace Hungary, Green Impact, Összefogás a Balatonért, Polish Society for the Protection of Bird OTOP, Protect the Forest, Reflex, Riverwatch, Stop Avalon! Tata, Wild Europe, Wolf, Za Zemiata
  • Several holiday cabins and hotel construction projects are planned in Lake Balaton in Siófok and Balatonaliga.
  • At Lake Fertő, the project to construct a 60 hectare tourism complex inside the Natura 2000 site Fertő tó SPA (SiteCode: HUFH10001), which is also registered as Fertő tó (SiteCode: HUFH20002), was authorised despite plans to modify the hydrological conditions.
  • At Tata Old Lake, the authorities are changing the local building regulation to provide an exception so that a private hotel investment can be built on the banks of the lake.
  • At Lake Velence, the authorities are changing the local building regulation to provide an exception for a private hotel investment to be built along the lakeshore.
  • According to EU law, national authorities can only give the green light to a project planned in a Natura 2000 site once an assessment has shown that the project will not harm the integrity of the site. The authorities should also make sure the public is given the opportunity to participate in the environmental decision-making process before the project is approved. The laws ushered through in Hungary attempt to sidestep these rules.
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