Will the Auken Report lead to better protection of the environment and a solution to illegal builds in Spain? Yes, says Matthew Pritchard
NEXT time you speak to a Spaniard, ask him what he thinks of the Auken Report.
If you get anything other than a blank look, I am willing to bet the person you asked is a journalist, an ecologist or someone directly affected by the illegal builds problem.
This is hardly surprising. Between earthquakes, G20 summits and government reshuffles, you could forgive most Spaniards for not noticing the smattering of articles which have appeared on the subject in the national press since the report was approved in Brussels last month.
For those who need reminding, the report voted in by MEPs (see A European Size Slap on the Wrist) roundly condemns both Spain’s treatment of the environment, as well as the civil rights abuses of thousands of individuals who have been fined after buying ‘illegal’ homes in good faith. Spain is likely to now lose millions in grants as a punishment.
What is surprising, though, is the attitude shown by some Spaniards.
Two weeks ago, a journalist friend asked Jesús García Calderón, Andalucía’s chief public prosecutor, for his opinion.
This was the reply: “It says nothing new about what we already know. It is only the opinion of a European institution, the difference being we here have to make the decisions to solve the problem.”
As a response it is typical of the tone adopted by Spanish authorities when faced with a difficult question: nonchalant, haughty and querulous, with just a touch of self-pity.
But the inference to be drawn from this is clear: Spain should take care of Spanish problems. Small matter that in the same interview Sr Calderón admitted many councils “could not cope” with the problems generated by illegal builds and did not know “how to get out of the mess”; the last thing Spain needs, in his opinion, is more pesky foreigners meddling in Spanish affairs.
His irritability on the subject is understandable. Foreigners are not only the victims of urban abuses; they have also proved irksomely effective at dragging Spain’s problems onto the international stage. The mere existence of the Auken Report is proof of that.
To many, it is being seen as the first step on the road to a solution to the problem of urban and environmental abuse.
Whether they are justified in this belief remains to be seen.
The Brussels motion wants to see the application of EU law and the report at least points the finger of blame.
It mentions ‘irresponsible’ local and regional authorities, ‘inadequate and unjustified’ legislation, as well as ‘lax application’ of the urban planning and environmental laws.
On top of this it also singles out corrupt local officials ‘who have facilitated unregulated urban developments’, lawyers for failing to do their job and ‘the inactivity and/or partiality’ of Spanish justice.
But the report is not legally binding in any way. Clues to this exist in the text of the document itself. While scathing in its description of the problem, the solutions proposed are couched in far tamer terms.
Ultimately the language used includes numerous ‘requests’ and ‘calls on’, but very few orders.
Even articles 27 and 28, seen by many as the ‘teeth’ of the document, merely “recall” that the European Commission has the power to withhold grants.
It simply says that ‘Parliament may decide to place funding set aside for cohesion policies in the reserve’ in order to persuade a Member State to end serious breaches of the rules and principles.
But some, such as Canadian expat, Charles Svoboda, who made one of the early petitions to Brussels for help, remains cautiously optimistic.
“It’s true EU resolutions are not binding, but they are influential,” he explains. “The lid is firmly off the building scandals here and it can never be put back on again.
“I think there is a very real possibility that the budgetary pressures mentioned could be used.”
The present economic times could be a bonus for the Auken Report
In other quarters, expat organisations are working to ensure the report has an effect. Gerardo Vazquez is legal adviser to AULAN, an organisation campaigning for a solution to the problem of illegal builds in the province of Almería.
He said: “The report’s impact is moral and political rather than legal. With this in mind, AULAN is drafting a letter asking councils to list exactly what they are doing to take on board the report’s recommendations. I know many other expat organisations are doing the same.”
So, will the Auken Report actually achieve anything?
On one hand having a moral, rather than legal order, could lead to it being simply ignored.
After all, introducing UNESCO biosphere reserves to protect areas alongside national and natural parks in Spain has not always been enough to stop development.
Take the recent examples of such protection on the Aracena Natural Park, where there is a plan to build a motorway, or the UNESCO reserve alongside the Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park, near Ronda. Here, developers have already cut down thousands of protected oak trees to carve out the infrastructure for a huge golf macroproject.
But I would argue that the report has already had an impact.
The ability of Spanish authorities to ignore a problem until it swims up and bites them on the arse, to use a phrase from Jaws, is second to none, when the problem also generates vast sums of money.
This deliberate insouciance is no longer possible now that the Auken Report has named and shamed.
Also, the timing of the report is crucial. Had it been approved in happier economic times, it would probably be yet another well-meaning EU document crushed beneath the wheels of commerce.
However, as the crisis bites harder, more and more ugly truths about what has been happening in Spain are surfacing.
With unemployment spiralling and Zapatero’s government opting for public works projects as an easy way of stimulating the economy, even the faint possibility of having EU subsidies frozen is hitting where it hurts most.
The difficult times we are living at the moment might just lend the Auken Report the urgency it needs to provoke relevant change in Spain’s policy toward urban and environmental abuses.