REC @ 25: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

I was recently a part of the official U.S. Delegation at a ministerial event celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Regional Environmental Center (REC) for Central and Eastern Europe in Budapest, Hungary. I also had the honor to represent President George H.W. Bush at the REC’s opening ceremony in Budapest on a beautiful warm and sunny day in September 1990.

Hungarian President Janos Ader meets with EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Lek Kadeli, former EPA Administrator William Reilly, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell, and others.

Hungarian President Janos Ader meets with EPA Acting Assistant Administrator Lek Kadeli, former EPA Administrator William Reilly, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell, and others.

The importance of engaging environmental problems on a regional scale was underscored by the issues that Central and Eastern Europe confronted in the early 1990s. Enacting new laws, setting new standards for air and water pollution, beginning to listen to non-governmental groups, creating forums for consulting citizens—all of these were novel in the immediate post-Soviet era, and every democratically elected government had to learn how to implement them.

There was nothing simple or inevitable about the environmental commitments made and implemented among these countries trying to find their footing economically and politically. Leaders had to believe the environment was important and that environmental standards and laws would not impede economic growth. And while none of the problems faced in the early 1990s have disappeared, they have been managed and the environment is indisputably superior by all metrics.

Still, each generation must commit anew and reaffirm the rationale for environmental protection, including setting priorities together with neighboring countries. The political and environmental landscape of the region today does not display the same euphoria that we felt in 1990 after the Berlin Wall fell, but the transition has been remarkably successful. And just as the experience of engaging with similarly challenged officials from neighboring countries was a REC objective, so today it remains important.

When I spoke as head of the U.S. Delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992, I chose to make the environmental commitments and achievements of the countries of Eastern Europe my principal theme. It was frankly the most significant and promising environmental success story of the decade. And the REC played an important unifying part in that story.

The REC has realized the hopes and aspirations of its founders and benefactors who are justly proud of its achievements and now celebrate its 25th Anniversary.

William K. Reilly worked under President George H. W. Bush (1989–1993) as the sixth administrator of EPA. While leading EPA, he initiated a program of environmental assistance to the countries of Eastern Europe as they established new environmental laws and institutions after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he persuaded then-President George H.W. Bush to propose and fund the REC.

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REC @ 25: A SILVER – AND GREEN – ANNIVERSARY

Twenty-five years. A quarter-century. It’s enough time to raise a young adult, age an excellent Scotch whiskey or turn a car into an antique.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell have brought historic changes. One important player in this remarkable transition has been the Regional Environmental Center (REC) for Central and Eastern Europe.

The original REC building in 1990, which was housed in a renovated silk mill in downtown Budapest.

The original REC building in 1990, which was housed in a renovated silk mill in downtown Budapest.

The REC is one of EPA’s longest-lived international programs. Created by EPA in 1990 at the request of then-President George H.W. Bush, the REC will celebrate its 25th Anniversary at a ministerial conference on June 10-11th, 2015 with the participation and support of Hungarian President Janos Ader. Former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, who represented EPA at the REC opening in 1990, will return to Budapest to personally affirm EPA’s proud place in its history.

I had the privilege of being part of the EPA team that helped create the REC in 1990. And because the REC opening was one of my first assignments, I will spend my 25th EPA anniversary in Hungary celebrating the major progress that the REC and this region have made.

The REC’s mandate is to foster transboundary cooperation, promote environmental improvements and share experiences. Its unique geographic scope fosters information-sharing and cooperation among countries at differing levels of environmental, economic and political development within and beyond the European Union. By combining diverse experiences, the REC strengthens environmental governance across Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.

Beginning in the 1990s, EPA partnered with the REC to develop Local Environmental Action Programs (LEAPs), empowering local communities to prioritize and address environmental concerns. With the support of European partners, the REC continues to replicate this successful model across the region. The U.S. State Department also has chosen to support LEAPs through the REC to empower local governments in Ukraine. In the early 2000s, the European Commission, another REC founder, selected the REC to help many of its member countries meet environmental requirements for EU membership. In 2012, Ukraine joined the REC, an affirmation of the continuing relevance and value of this regional collaboration. And the REC’s value is further illustrated by the fact that many of its current leaders were there at its birth in 1990.

The REC’s 25th Anniversary is an opportunity to celebrate strengthened democratic and environmental governance in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s also a unique chance for EPA to take pride in our contribution to the REC’s creation – and its ultimate success.

As EPA’s Program Manager for Europe, Anna Phillips coordinates cooperation with the European Commission, EU Member States, non-EU partners and international organizations. Previously, Anna managed EPA’s technical assistance programs in Central and Eastern Europe from 1990-2004. She holds a degree from Tufts University in Soviet and East European Studies.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.