Searching for solidarity: developing EU capacities for crisis and disaster management

24 March 2011

Helena Lindberg, the Director General of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, noted that, with the Lisbon Treaty, there was now a new legal framework making the EU better equipped to deal with crises and disasters. She cautioned against complacency, giving the example of Japan - and asked what would happen if a similar disaster were to occur in Europe or if the next pandemic were to be far more deadly. A key aspect in developing Europe’s response to this challenge is to focus on strengthening generic capacity for coordination between institutions, policy-areas and levels of decision-making.  She praised the ongoing efforts of the Commission in terms of involving Member States in a more systematic process of identifying risks, develop scenarios and joint planning.

Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, began by drawing attention to the planet’s growing fragility from the increase in natural disasters, demographic explosion and human conflicts. Anticipating and planning for these risks and threats was an enormous task. The Commissioner reminded the audience of major disasters, terrorist attacks and violent conflicts in 2011. She pointed to factors which will increasingly determine the frequency and severity of disasters and the need for more civilian and military cooperation to develop a coherent response. This requires clear protocols to be in place.

The Commissioner explained that her department follows three main principles: be the first to go when there is a natural disaster inside or outside the Union; be the last to leave; give attention to careful preparation. The provider of half of the world’s humanitarian assistance, the EU works closely with the UN, humanitarian organisations and people on the ground best equipped to deal with a particular disaster. Inside the Commission, she adopts a holistic approach that involves all 27 Commissioners (with the possible exception of those responsible for competition policy and economic affairs). Finally, she outlined the policy challenges ahead.

Magnus Ekengren, Associate Professor, Swedish National Defence College, noted a distinction is still made in Europe between internal and external crisis management capacities. This had to be broken down in order to boost the capacity of the EU to provide an adequate response to current and emerging risks. He suggested the EU needed to be bolder and promote reform of national capacities and disaster planning to cope with these different types of trans-boundary crises

Florika Fink-Hooijer, Head of Cabinet to Commissioner Georgieva, welcomed the emphasis being placed on the EU’s role. She said that those asking for the EU’s assistance now expected it be consolidated, coherent and effective. That could only be achieved if the Commission works with Member States. Having civil protection and humanitarian aid in one directorate-general helps to create synergy and ensure cost effectiveness. The new structures that have emerged as a result of the Lisbon treaty had not complicated the situation - good cooperation between Commissioner Georgieva’s officials and the new external action service and the military had removed the danger of duplication and confusion. She emphasised that humanitarian aid is not and should not be a foreign policy tool. One area where the EU could improve its performance was in the visibility of its aid.

Ana Gomes, MEP, welcomed the Commission’s initial Proposal for Action Plan, but expressed disappointment that the language of the Commission had been so watered down by Member States that the Action Plan was now rather toothless and would not help the EU as a whole to strengthen its preparedness. Nor was it being properly implemented. Ms Gomes agreed with the need for more synergy between civilian and military actors, and called for a European civil protection force, and an authority that can coordinate civil and military contributions when rapid response is required.

Agostino Miozzo, Managing Director for crisis response and operational coordination in the European External Action Service, insisted that the best lessons to be learned from a disaster came from what one had experienced personally. A recent success had been the Russian forest fires where the EU’s assistance followed a clear request, and had the experience needed to mount a response. The events in Japan underline the fragility of our economies and showed how quickly a developed country could become an underdeveloped one. With regard to the current Libyan crisis the EU was performing well, also in merging its civilian and military assets to deliver humanitarian aid.

Maria Ǻsenius, Head of Cabinet to the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, situated crisis and disaster management in wider terms, and outlined five objectives of the internal security strategy: to disrupt international criminal networks; prevent terrorism; protect cyberspace; improve cooperation between border guards, police and customs officials; and develop crisis and disaster management.  She stressed that intelligence sharing is still lacking and  work remains to be done in streamlining processes for coordinating information. EU member states will not be willing to put more resources into crisis management and solidarity assistance unless they can see that the recipient is able to use the help efficiently and has itself done everything possible before asking for outside assistance.