Plans for a European special disaster reaction force are to be considered by leaders of the 25 EU member states at their upcoming summit meeting in Brussels. The EU tasked Michel Barnier, the former European Commissioner for Regional Policy and former French Foreign Minister, to produce proposals for the organisation, to be called Europe Aid. It would deal with disasters such as the Asian tsunami of 2004, when Europe’s crisis-management coordination was criticised.
Christophe Midol-Monnet, EuroNews: Michel Barnier, welcome to EuroNews. What is Europe Aid?
Michel Barnier: The idea of Europe Aid is better coordination to help European citizens who are in danger or difficulty and also people in the rest of the world who suffer disasters or crises; essentially the idea is for the European Union to act together. And rather than help being given on an individual country basis, we would work together to assist when there is a tragedy like the tsunami, or last year’s earthquake in Kashmir, or say an earthquake closer to Europe in Greece or Turkey, major flooding or storms, or a maritime catastrophe like the oil spills from the Erika or Prestige tanker sinkings. Rather than act separately, the idea is to prepare our response and to anticipate.
EuroNews: Within the EU there are already systems in place to coordinate such efforts. What would Europe Aid add?
Michel Barnier: The key thing is preparation, anticipation and joint training. So when there is a disaster, heads of state and government and the European Commission can make immediate decisions and respond immediately, without improvisation as everything will have been prepared.
EuroNews: And does bio-terrorism feature in this type of crisis?
Michel Barnier: I think that’s one possible tragedy that could occur in Europe, but it could also happen elsewhere. We’ve seen terrorism in all its forms in the United States, in North Africa and probably the most insidious form of terrorism could be bioterrorism. So in my report I say we should think precisely about this kind of attack, in particular by having laboratories that specialise in measures against bioterrorism in Europe.
EuroNews: Internationally, the EU’s humanitarian aid programme is run by the European Community Humanitarian Office – ECHO. Would this proposal replace ECHO?
Michel Barnier: I’d say disaster relief and humanitarian aid go together. When there is a disaster, immediately afterwards two responses are needed. There’s humanitarian aid, which consists of bringing in food, on a purely humanitarian basis, to feed people. And then there’s disaster relief, to look after people, to make repairs, to carry out searches for people trapped under collapsed building after an earthquake, specialist help. So, it is a question of working well together and to that end, for the long term, by 2009, I’ve proposed that, within the European Commission, there’ll be only one commissioner in charge of humanitarian efforts, ECHO.
So we wouldn’t need to replace it, but rather include disaster relief under that commissioner’s authority.Therefore, it is not a question of ECHO disappearing, as it works well, but perhaps giving it broader responsibilities under the title Europe Aid.
EuroNews: So, in time, would the name ECHO vanish?
Michel Barnier: I do not know if the name ECHO will disappear or not. What resonance does it have and what exactly does it mean in the countries we go to? I don’t have a problem with that and it is not me who’ll decide if it’s still called ECHO or not. It seems to me that if we put both flags on the planes or the vehicles, if it’s Austrian, the Austrian flag, if its Finnish, the Finnish flag, alongside the European Union flag and the name Europe Aid, that’s something everyone can understand.
EuroNews: How does Europe Aid fit into the debate on whether humanitarian aid can amount to political interference?
Michel Barnier: I don’t want to respond to that question which is certainly very sensitive, but which poses a political problem.
My proposal is for operational ways for Europe to be more effective in the help it can provide to European citizens or other people who need assistance.
EuroNews: Following on from French President Jacques Chirac walked out of a Summit session because a French man was speaking English, can I ask in what language your report will be presented to the twenty five EU leaders?
Michel Barnier: This report was translated into three EU working languages which are English, French and German. And then, it will be further translated if the institutions want it to. When I was a French government minister and during my five years as a commissioner I was accustomed to expressing myself in French, but it is one of the official languages of the European Union and so there is no problem for that.