As the French call for a pan European response to major humanitarian incidents, Dennis Davis looks at underlining implications surrounding preparation for major disasters.

The recent letter calling for the creation of a European disaster Rapid Reaction Force, from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to President of the European Commission Jose-Manuel Barroso, is the latest step in an exchange of views between some Member States and the European Commission, apparently designed to answer fears that the European Union continues to be ill prepared to face the continuing realities of humanitarian disasters.

Promoted this time by the floods in Pakistan, the call is the latest well expressed argument that the EU must do more to coordinate response to meet international demands for assistance in any unified way, especially in developing countries. The call follows similar statements made after other recent events like China's flooding, Russia's wildfires and the earlier earthquake in Haiti, even though in some of those cases the country affected sought no international aid.

Disaster Preparedness in Europe 

More worrying for some Member States is that underneath these expressions of concern about international response is a questioning about overall preparedness to meet disasters within the European Union. The pressure has been mounting in Brussels for some time after the experience in recent years of unpredictable weather. Hot periods that have seen many wildfires - often around the Mediterranean - and heavy rain, creating landslides and flooding, have tested and sometimes overwhelmed local, regional and even national authorities.

The French President's letter is therefore no surprise and indeed to some extent mirrors earlier recommendations made in a report by another French Minister, Michel Barnier, written in the wake of the Asian tsunami, that the EU should have an organised response force. Four years after Barnier's report progress in assembling any form of single expeditionary emergency reaction force certainly does not appear to have advanced and a number of studies have suggested the European Union lacks solidarity.

That is not to say there has been no European Union progress. Funding now exists to support aid distribution, coordinated response planning has advanced and preventive actions are becoming established. Also very recently following this year's European Commission elections there has been internal reorganisation to gain synergy between international and internal humanitarian reaction by placing the EU Civil Protection Unit within the Directorate General - Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.

The new Directorate General has retained the acronym ECHO, coming from the old title European Commission Humanitarian Office, and is led by Director-General Peter Zangl. Overseen by the Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva, who is from Bulgaria, DG ECHO's civil protection functions remain substantially the same as they were in DG Environment with the central instrument for action being the Civil Protection Mechanism.

However this is an important change, and not just moving of the European Union deck chairs, since the relocation coincides with establishing two new associated bureaus; one being the European External Action Service, undertaken by High Representative Vice President Ashton; and the other the creation of a new Home Affairs Commission led by Cecilia Malmström from Sweden. The consequence is now three people - HRVP Ashton and Commissioners Malmström and Georgieva - have roles along with EC President Barroso in determining how in future Europe will meet internal and external response to humanitarian disasters.

DG ECHO already operates two activity work streams through two units - the Disaster Response Unit, and Prevention and Preparedness Unit - using legal powers derived from the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The more recent Lisbon Treaty stressed solidarity and added focus to supporting and supplementing Member States' actions, whilst also tasking the European Union with promoting the consistency of international civil protection work.

Reinforcing the European Response Capacity 

The Lisbon Treaty of course also importantly altered where competency should lie, shifting responsibilities from being exclusively that of Member States to being a three way affair with the European Union undertaking some tasks, others being shared between the Member States and European Union and others remaining solely with the Member States. Post Lisbon a co-decision process also now exists in the European Union Council and Parliament with qualified majority voting. Legal changes can therefore become ratified even if some Member States reject the proposition.

So the stage is certainly set for reform. Post discussion in Madrid DG-Home Affairs are currently constructing a new internal security strategy, HRVP Ashton is assessing foreign policy and within DG ECHO there is past and current evaluation on the use made of the Mechanism and Civil Protection Financial Instrument. It is reasonable to anticipate that by the end of 2010 we may well see more official EU Communications.

One such Communication, likely to be called 'Reinforcing the European Response Capacity', is intended to suggest how the European Union might best draw together the stands of response with humanitarian aid, civil protection and civilian-military cooperation. This in turn would prepare the way for the Commission, perhaps by the end of 2011, to make legislative proposals. Seen against all this background the French President's call for a disaster response force appears well timed.

The big question of course is, do we need a European Union Reaction Force? The term 'force' is alone enough to send a shiver down many civil protection professional backs and the notion of an overarching European Union established body similarly worries many who oppose greater EU federalism that weakens the sovereign State. Little surprise therefore that progress has been slow in forming such an organisation.

Dennis Davis is CTIF Vice President Chairman of CTIF Europe, and Chairman of the Federation of British Fire Organisations.

See October issue of FIRE for full story.