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Sarah questions EU Commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response on the EU's civilian and military rapid disaster response

May 10, 2011 6:19 PM

Question by Sarah Ludford MEP to European Commissioner for Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva on Civilian and military disaster response:

The conflict in Libya has shown the importance of Europe's ability to mobilise a range of resources for rapid reaction.

What is the Commission's assessment of the EU's progress in its ability to draw on both military and humanitarian capabilities in a coordinated way?

Has the suggestion of a permanent body to coordinate both civilian and military disaster response from the EU and Member States made any headway?

Kristalina Georgieva, Member of the Commission. − Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, the European Union has shouldered its responsibilities to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population by providing timely and significant humanitarian assistance.

To date, the Commission has allocated EUR 50 million - EUR 40 million from our humanitarian aid budget and EUR 10 million from the civil protection budget line - while the 27 Member States have collectively contributed EUR 52 million, bringing the total amount of EU humanitarian assistance to EUR 102 million. We are by far the leaders in addressing the needs of people in Libya.

Our humanitarian funding supports activities implemented by partners, UN agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and NGOs. Our activities address both pressing needs inside Libya and the needs of people who have been fleeing Libya. As of today, 740 000 Muslim migrant workers have left the country in search of safety.

Inside Libya, our activities include the evacuation by sea of about 2000 civilians from Misrata, the provision of food, water, sanitation and medical supplies in Misrata and other areas of Libya, and provisional materials for food, as we expect the food situation to worsen in the next four to six weeks.

In border areas outside Libya, the Commission is supporting the pre-positioning of emergency stocks. We are also supporting operations in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria for people who have left Libya.

The EU civil protection mechanism has been activated twice: firstly to support Member States' consular operations to evacuate our citizens - 5800 Europeans have been evacuated -, and secondly to facilitate the return home of migrant workers stuck in Tunisia and Egypt. We have provided 157 flights from Member States with support from the Commission, and we have also funded the repatriation of third country nationals through the International Organisation for Migration. In total, over 56 000 people safely made it home. This, of course, also helps to reduce the risk of a wave of migrants into Europe.

Despite the ongoing fighting and its spread to various parts of Libya, humanitarian organisations are doing a remarkable job in preventing a major humanitarian disaster. At this point, our main concern remains that, in large parts of Libya controlled by Gaddafi, access for these humanitarian workers is limited.

Sarah Ludford (ALDE). - Commissioner, in the light of Parliament resolutions and the Council conclusions of last December, could you give us your assessment of the progress that has been made since the 2006 Barnier report in setting up a really coherent rapid reaction or disaster response mechanism: one that draws together humanitarian, civil protection and military assets and that has a pre-identified pool of resources from Member States rather than an ad hoc approach? Are we getting our act together? Can you reassure us?

Kristalina Georgieva, Member of the Commission. − In reply to the first question, access in areas of Libya where military operations are taking place is limited but we still - thanks to the courage of humanitarian workers - have been able to reach two affected populations in Misrata as well as in the contested cities in the coastal area. Where we have not been able to reach affected populations is in the western part of Libya under the control of Gaddafi.

We are also very concerned that we are now seeing an increase of Libyans fleeing the country. Out of the 740 000 people I mentioned today, some 50 000 are Libyans and it is their number that is growing, facing us with an additional challenge to help these people. Most of them are moving to live with host communities in Tunisia and in Egypt. We now have to find a way to support these communities.

As far as the ceasefire is concerned, we have been calling for a ceasefire to allow safe access for humanitarian assistance and, of course, we very much support the UN in this regard. I can assure you that we are in constant contact with the UN and the UNHCR so that we can deploy assistance when a window of opportunity opens up, as we have now done on numerous occasions, for example in the case of Misrata.

Georgieva There was actually a separate question on the coordinated response. May I continue with an answer to this question? We have made significant progress in advancing work on the communication on strengthening the EU disaster response that was unanimously supported by the Council at the end of last year. Our intention is to actually accelerate work on implementing this communication with an eye to setting up a 24/7 European emergency response centre by the end of this calendar year. It will be built on the basis of the current MIC - the monitoring and information centre - and also on the basis of the emergency teams of humanitarian assistance that existed in ECHO. It will have the physical capability to operate on a 24/7 basis.

Over the last year, especially in the context of the response to the Haiti disaster, the Pakistan floods and today in response to Libya, we have built very strong and effective working relations with the EU military staff in the European External Action Service to the point that now EU military staff designate liaison officers as part of our humanitarian operation, so we can make sure that we plan and execute together as one.

To give a straightforward answer to your question: yes, we are making progress. Unfortunately, due to the events of the last year, we have faced exceptionally difficult circumstances in 2010 - and also this year - that have given a very strong impetus to advance this work.

Sarah Ludford (ALDE). - Yes, indeed! The Council conclusions of last December talked about various Commission proposals during 2011. I cannot claim to be a specialist in this area but they have not hit the headlines and I wondered whether any have been made. This is going back to proposals that have been made in the past, including by colleagues in my political group, for an EU fast-track organisation. The Parliament called for a European civil protection force, with the idea of having some kind of permanent body so that we would not have to keep relying on this hand-to-mouth exercise; we would set up the mechanisms so that we could go into action very quickly. I know you said we have made progress, but are we getting to the really ideal situation?

Kristalina Georgieva, Member of the Commission. − What the Council conclusions gave us a mandate to do is to work towards the establishment of European civil protection capacity that is predictable and ready for immediate deployment, based on our Member States dedicating modules that we can mobilise and transport to where they are needed immediately, as the disaster hits.

Where we are today is actually quite impressive because we already have 104 modules that Member States have registered with us and we have their commitment that we can mobilise and deliver assistance in a predictable manner, as long as they do not need these modules to fight the same disasters at home.

We still have work to do in identifying the gaps and how we are going to fill these gaps. For that we will do the prudent work and then come to our authorising environment, to the Council and to Parliament, for your approval of the approach we are proposing to fill gaps.

What is advancing faster than anticipated last year is the creation of the European Emergency Response Centre. I can assure you it would make a big difference because it would allow us to accelerate work on scenario planning - what kinds of disasters we have to be prepared for, and also on modelisation of the committed Member States' assets.

The words that made a difference were 'voluntary commitment from Member States'. But once that commitment is made, these assets belong to the Community and they are deployable by us.