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European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Strengthening European Disaster Response Capacity
Madeira, EPP Study Days
Madeira, 13 October 2010
It is a great pleasure to be invited to address the EPP Study Days. The subject you have chosen to cover in this session – how the EU can step up its disaster response capacity - can hardly be more urgent or important. It is an issue which matters greatly to our citizens and is an area where there is a clear value added in EU member states working together as closely as possible.
The tragic events in Madeira in February this year are a reminder of just how vulnerable we are when faced with the force of a natural disaster. And this is not an isolated occurrence. Our fragile planet has taken a battering since the beginning of this year.
Haiti. An estimated 230,000 people were killed, 300,000 were injured and 1,000,000 made homeless.
Iceland’s volcano closed most of Europe's airspace for six days. The result was a massive disruption in air travel which stranded hundreds of thousands of travellers and cost the airlines billions of Euros.
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and resulted in the largest oil spill in history.
This summer has seen serious flooding in much of central Europe.
Russia experienced one of the hottest summers in centuries which led to devastating forest fires.
The floods in Pakistan submerged an area about 5 times the size of Belgium. Over 1,300 people have died and around 20 million people are in need of assistance.
And right now the Hungarian authorities are battling with a toxic spill that is threatening not only their own ecosystems but also that of neighbouring countries.
It would seem as if 2010 has been a particularly unlucky time. But the reality is that the frequency and intensity of disasters is on the increase. The number of recorded disasters has risen five-fold since 1975.
World-wide, disasters affect approximately 230 million individuals and claim an average of 85,000 lives each year. In an average year damages are almost €70 billion or about ¼% of global GDP.
The main reasons for this increase are:
These forces are likely to remain with us and there is no reason to expect that the trend of the last decades will be reversed. We are faced with an increasingly disaster prone world and this is something that both individuals and policy makers need to prepare for.
The primary responsibility for disaster prevention, preparedness and response lies with national governments. But there are a number of ways in which EU cooperation can make a real difference.
First, when a country is overwhelmed by a disaster, the delivery of international assets and expertise can save lives and reduce economic and social costs. By working together in a coordinated way we can provide a more effective European response.
Second, joint training and learning from experience helps strengthen national systems.
Third, joint efforts are cost-effective. Individual governments no longer need to purchase equipment to deal singlehandedly with every possible disaster. At a time when public finances are increasingly tight this is a compelling argument.
Fourth, a strong European response, both at home and in third countries, contributes to Europe's positive image and standing around the world.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that 90 percent of EU citizens support a stronger EU response when disasters strike.
Earlier this year Parliament called for the creation of a European rapid response mechanism. My intention is to bring forward a set of proposals that will respond to this call and that will start a process of transformation in the EU's approach to disaster management.
Lessons learned exercises that we carried out following the major disasters of this year have shown that the EU's existing instruments work well. But they have also pointed to areas where further improvements need to be made.
Building on these experiences – as well as on previous initiatives such as the Barnier Report – my services have developed a series of measures that will be presented in a Commission Communication on Disaster Response.
Our key objective will be to move away from an ad hoc response to one which is pre-planned, predictable and immediate.
At present, the deployment of EU assets is based on voluntary offers of assistance. There is an inevitable degree of improvisation and decisions are sometimes delayed. In situations where every hour counts, Europe needs a system that can guarantee that key assets are available for instant deployment.
The Commission intends to:
Develop reference scenarios for the main types of disasters
Map the Member State assets that are available for an EU response.
Ask Member States to voluntarily place core assets on standby – ready to participate in a European response when the need arises.
Make sure that transportation arrangements are in place for the immediate deployment of EU assistance.
Following a request for assistance, the Commission would call for the immediate deployment of these assets. These arrangements will form the nucleus of an EU Disaster Response Capacity.
We will also merge the ECHO and Civil Protection crisis rooms to create a re-enforced Emergency Response Centre inside the Commission.
In third countries, the Commission will work to improve shared coordination and logistics arrangements which will allow the EU to plug our collective deployment directly into the UN coordination system.
We will also develop a strategic approach to communications. The EU response to disasters has often been effective but it is not always visible. Visibility is not an end in itself but the European public has a right to know how European help is being provided.
The Communication that we are preparing will represent a first building block in the development of a strengthened EU disaster response capacity. Other building blocks will cover the use of the new European External Action Service and also how we can more effectively link military assets – when exceptional circumstances mean that they are needed – to the overall civilian response effort. I am working very closely with Cathy Ashton on both of these issues.
The frequency and intensity of the disasters that we are facing will continue to increase. The impacts of disasters can be massive and often cross national borders. And there is a clear value added from EU member states working together to address these issues.
It is for these reasons that the European Parliament has been steady in its calls to strengthen the EU's role in disaster management. And following the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty you will be co-legislator in taking forward the proposals that the Commission brings forward.
I look forward to working very closely together in the future months and years to make the objective of a genuine European disaster response capacity a reality that we can all be proud of.