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How Hungary’s great lakes threaten to put Budapest and Brussels on a new collision course

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Ferto Lake is Hungary's second-largest freshwater lake and home to vast bird and marine life.
Ferto Lake is Hungary's second-largest freshwater lake and home to vast bird and marine life.   -   Copyright  Zoltan Kun
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Zoltan Kun was finishing up a project for the Hungarian government in 2019 when he happened across a promotional video on YouTube for a new development on the banks of Lake Fertő, Hungary’s second-largest freshwater lake and a protected nature reserve.

It began with stunning vistas of the lake, an hour’s drive from Kun’s home in Györ, Hungary, and its unique birdlife and untouched natural habitat. Then it pivoted to a computer-generated overlay showing a brand new marina, four-star hotel, indoor sports complex and car park.

Kun had personal reasons for objecting to such a huge development on the shores of Lake Fertő, a popular spot to go cycling with his kids, but a professional one too: as a conservationist, he knew first hand what a project of that size and scope meant for the lake.

“I thought, no, this can’t happen,” Zoltan told Euronews, “It’s inside a national park, [...] it is within a core area of a protected site. I said no, nobody can allow that!”

One-man war

At first, Kun was waging a one-man war, but he quickly found allies in the local community and set up a civil society foundation, Save Ferto Lake.

In 2019, he submitted a complaint to the European Commission (EC) about the development, the initial work on which was just starting.

It highlighted how Hungary’s government was using “exceptional regulations” to bypass legal requirements for a proper environmental assessment and public participation.

New laws in Hungary are allowing administrative procedures to be fast-tracked for economic activities and construction projects, simplifying assessment procedures and making it near-impossible for interested people and organisations to take part in the planning process.

A spokesman for the Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Zoltan Kun
A rendering of the project planned for the shores of Ferto LakeZoltan Kun

“We began to realise that a very similar problem appears at all the large lakes in Hungary, all the natural lakes - maybe on a smaller scale - but basically all of the lakes are under pressure because of tourist development,” Kun said.

Indeed, the Lake Fertő project is just the beginning. In the two years since Kun lodged his complaint, projects have been launched at three of Hungary’s other great lakes, Lake Balaton, Tata Old Lake and Lake Velence, all of which are protected under European law.

The development is part of a €100m push by Hungary’s government designed to boost tourism in the country, where the industry already contributed a massive 10% of GDP.

This week, 21 organisations from 12 countries joined Zoltan’s fight, lodging a second complaint with the EC calling for a stop to all large-scale infrastructure projects threatening the lakes.

A lawyer for one of the organisations, ClientEarth, explained that the legal problem is twofold: first, that massive tourism projects are being developed without a proper assessment of their impact and second that new laws make it easier for private companies to get building permits.

Zoltan Kun
Construction work is yet to begin at Ferto, but preparations are being made despite ongoing complaints to the EC.Zoltan Kun

“We hope that our letter will be the final straw, convincing the Commission to open an infringement procedure against the Hungarian government,” said ClientEarth lawyer Ewelina Tylec-Bakalarz. “Decisive action may bring stronger protection to all the lakes.”

Euronews has reached out for comment to the European Commission about the complaint.

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.

Private vs state developments

In terms of size relative to Hungary’s other great lakes, Fertő is relatively small, at 75 square kilometres. It is dwarfed in size by Lake Balaton, a 600-square kilometre freshwater lake that usually hosts as many as one million tourists over the summer season each year.

The development which is part of the EC complaint is proposing a new 150-berth marina and a new four-star hotel at Lake Balaton, already home to dozens of lakeside resorts, as well as holiday cabins and other hotel projects in Siófok and Balatonaliga.

The other two lakes in the complaint, Lake Velence and Lake Oreg - also known as Tata Old Lake, in the far north of the country - are 26 and three square kilometres respectively. Both lakes now face the prospect of new private projects on their banks.

Unlike Fertő, the Oreg, Balaton and Velence projects are being developed by private companies, not the Hungarian state, raising questions about who will operate the facilities if and when they are finished and the impact on private tourist providers in the area.

But despite the opacity, for Kun, it is a relief that he is no longer fighting the battle alone.

“As a private individual, submitting a complaint is risky. It's risky in the sense that I don't have the resources to actually handle the complaint,” he said.

“But it's also risky because it's kind of easy for the government to say: OK, I send the tax office to check on you.”

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