Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A new job for Europe? Responding to national disasters

The duty of civil protection is usually the responsibility of Member States yet the Commission now wants to go beyond its merely supportive role and interfere in national civil protection. The European Commission intends to interfere with Member State civil protection capabilities as well as coordinate their response to disaster. Last March, the European Commission adopted a communication with the purpose “to reinforce the EU’s disaster response capacity.” The Commission wants to put in place an integrated disaster response for the EU. It has presented an action plan with proposals for enhancing the EU’s response capacity and recommends the actions to be implemented by the end of 2008. The communication covers natural or man-made disasters as well as conflict-related emergencies which have taken place either inside or outside the EU.

Presently, there is no specific Treaty basis but the absence of legal basis on civil protection has not prevented the Union from taking action. The Community measures in this area have been adopted on the basis of Article 308 TEC (flexibility Clause) under which unanimity at the Council and consultation to the European Parliament is required. The Lisbon Treaty creates a new legal basis for civil protection which has been among the key areas where the Member States should have retained exclusive competence and the Union was only to provide a support or co-ordination role. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Cabinet Office, Tom Watson, has explained to the European Scrutiny Committee that “any such Commission proposals for action under existing instruments would be decided by the comitology procedure by qualified majority voting.” However, if the Commission puts forward proposals which alter current legislation, then unanimity is required. Under the Lisbon Treaty, it is required that the proposal pass through qualified majority voting in the Council and co-decision with the European Parliament.

The Commission believes that in order to achieve better inter-institutional cooperation itself the Council and Member States should define “multifaceted scenarios” for disaster relief operations, and deploy joint planning and operational teams to deal with particular disasters. The Commission has proposed to transform the Monitoring and Information Centre into an operational centre for European civil protection intervention.

Tom Watson believes “… that such a move would draw limited expertise away from Member States where it is most likely to be needed in an emergency, or if this led to duplication with other EU structures such as the Council’s SitCen.” Moreover, he has pointed out that “At present, the MIC does not have the skills or capacity to become itself a fully operational centre to manage disaster response activities whether within or outside the EU.”

The Commission has said in its communication that the European Parliament has urged it to put forward a proposal on a European rapid reaction force for emergencies based on the civil protection mechanisms of the Member States. The Commission wants to improve the European civil protection response capacity. It has made clear that it wishes to coordinate the Member State civil protection resources. The Commission has stressed that the response to disasters, such as floods and forest fires presently come solely from national sources. The Commission therefore wants to develop reserve resources available for European civil protection operations. It will present proposals for enhancing the European civil protection response capacity based on “a voluntary pool of key standby civil protection modules to be available for deployment at any time” and “additional reserve capacities designed to complement national responses to major disasters such as forest fires and flooding.” These proposals are likely to raise subsidiarity concerns. According to the minister, “The HMG views with caution the proposal for complementary reserve resources at EU-level” pointing out that “the Commission has neither the expert capability, nor the legal competence, nor the finance to hold such disaster response resources at present.”

It remains to be seen if the Council will back the Commission proposals. The Council is yet to deliver conclusions on the Commission’s communication.

Furthermore, on 11 March, the European Parliament adopted a report approving the mobilisation of the EU solidarity fund for an amount of €162.4 million (£110m) relating to the floods in the United Kingdom in June and July 2007. However, it has recently been exposed that the UK will receive only £31m. Timothy Kirkhope MEP has blamed it on Tony Blair, who in December 2005 renegotiated the UK rebate. Timothy Kirkhope said: “…They were very triumphant when the money was secured but they must have been well aware then that they would not be receiving anywhere close to all of it.”

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