The concept of creating an EU Rapid Reaction Force to deal with natural disasters is not a new one, but it now seems the idea is gaining powerful momentum in Brussels soon after it was revealed the French President Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to Commission President José Manuel Barroso urging for a stronger common EU role in disaster relief.
Indeed, in January earlier this year the newly-chosen President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy on a trip to London to visit the then-PM Gordon Brown outlined his desire to create an EU humanitarian Rapid Reaction Force, which was warmly welcomed and was later cited by the humanitarian aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva during her pre-selection screening before the Parliament.
While on both occasions no further details about the possible structure of the force was offered such as who would run it, who would finance it, where it would be based, it was clear that Mr Van Rompuy’s intentions were honest and come in light of numerous occasions when the deployment of vital EU relief aid has been slow. As he stated in that press conference, this proved to him that "a better instrument for reacting - a rapid reaction force" was needed.
This was echoed in Mr Sarkozy’s letter to Mr Barroso dated 15th August, in his he writes: “for obvious humanitarian and political reasons, Europe should manifest its solidarity with the Pakistani population in a visible way. The interest of Europe is to help the development and the stability of this country”.
He also noted the EU can do more in committing to cover the immediate humanitarian needs to a greater extent, in coordination with its member states and the United Nations.
It seems the European Commission has taken note and looks set to lay out its vision on how to improve its capacity to handle natural disasters “immediately after the summer,” Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, a spokesman for Ms Georgieva, revealed yesterday.
Ms Georgieva “is going to come up with a paper on the reinforcement of Europe's crisis response capacity immediately after the summer,” he said before denying that this was solely because of Mr Sarkozy’s intervention saying she “has been working on that paper since day one” of taking office in February.
But what is for certain however is that the creation of an EU Rapid Reaction Force would go beyond current arrangements under which the EU simply coordinates aid offered by national civil protection authorities, and would help to quickly mobilise EU funds in times of urgent need.
The main problem however will be finding the means for the individual member states to agree to pool sovereignty and act as one common bloc (how often have we heard this?). Especially in Britain, it is becoming an increasingly hard sell for national governments to ask their people to provide resources for Brussels and then add to that the fact that each member state has its own strategies and they want to put their own flag in the ground, not that of the EU, and you’re faced with a tricky conundrum.
Take the recent response to the flooding in Pakistan as an example: so far the EU Commission has earmarked €40 million in aid, while the UK which has a greater vested interest in the county as one of those in the British Commonwealth has individually pledged £31.3 million in aid – almost the same amount.
But not all are in favour of a common Rapid Reaction Force: Belgian MEP Louis Michel, the very man who managed the EU's response to the 2004 Asian tsunami, spoke out soon after Mr Van Rompuy’s comments in January saying that he was “very sceptical” about creating a special EU fast intervention corps. “We don't want the actors stepping on each other's toes and all the world's well-intentioned volunteers crowding the disaster scene,” he said in an interview published by the European Parliament's news service.
The EU aid mechanism as it currently exists was most recently called into action to help put out forest fires in Portugal and to contribute to the clean-up of the Gulf of Mexico in the United States following the BP oil spill. Back in January the EU pledged more than €400 million (£354m) in emergency aid for Haiti, to which an additional combined €92 million was pledged by individual EU member states.