21st Oct 2016

EU foreign relations chief tests new powers in earthquake response

  • The earthquake on Tuesday is thought to have claimed tens of thousands of lives and left millions homeless. (Photo: Caritas)

The EU's response to the earthquake in Haiti has given a first glimpse into how the bloc's new foreign relations set-up is to work in practice.

The union's new foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, is currently awaiting the EU parliament's formal approval for her appointment and is to put forward proposals for the structure of her future diplomatic corps, as mandated by the Lisbon Treaty, by April.

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But Ms Ashton's office already leapt into action on Wednesday (13 January) as news emerged of the scale of what looks like the worst natural disaster since the Asian tsunami in 2004.

The earthquake on Tuesday is thought to have claimed tens of thousands of lives and left millions homeless.

Ms Ashton chaired a meeting in Brussels of European Commission officials from the foreign relations, development and environment departments as well as experts from the EU Council and the Situation Centre, the EU member states' intelligence-gathering hub.

The meeting agreed to trigger €3 million in emergency aid, signed off by development commissioner Karel de Gucht, and to look into further financial assistance, such as advance payments from the commission's €28 million annual development budget for Haiti.

It also decided to send officials from the commission's environment department to the earthquake zone to assess damage and to task an environment department unit to co-ordinate pledges from Belgium, Sweden, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Norway, Iceland and Luxembourg to send personnel and equipment.

Ms Ashton on Wednesday also attended a separate meeting of EU member states' ambassadors in Brussels and may travel to Haiti personally in future.

"It's the first time in such a situation that we have brought all these various actors together. I wouldn't call it the first act of the External Action Service, because that doesn't exist yet, but this has never been done before," Ms Ashton's spokesman, Lutz Guellner, told EUobserver.

"She is acting as the overall co-ordinator on this, for example any contacts with Ban Ki Moon [the UN secretary general] will be through her."

The Spanish EU presidency has taken a back seat. But the rotating chairmanship also got to work on Wednesday by calling snap meetings of EU diplomats dealing with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and by offering Ms Ashton the use of a Spanish base in Panama.

Ms Ashton is on Thursday to meet with Spanish defence minister Carme Chacon to see what else can be done.

Bilateral action

Meanwhile, EU member states are carrying out the vast bulk of Europe's response on a bilateral basis with Haiti, with the former colonial powers in the region - France, Spain, the UK and the Netherlands - taking the lead.

France, the former colonial ruler in Haiti, has sent two military planes carrying 85 rubble-clearing experts and medical staff, with the country's development minister, Alain Joyandet, set to travel to the country in the coming days.

Spain has sent three planes with over 40 staff and 150 tonnes of supplies and pledged an extra €3 million. The country's secretary of state for Latin America, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, is on his way to Haiti to help run the relief effort.

The UK has sent over 70 rescue specialists and 10 tonnes of kit. The Netherlands has donated €2 million and will send a 60-person search-and-rescue team.

Germany (€1.5 million), Denmark (€1.3 million), Italy (€1 million) and Sweden (€0.6 million) have also promised support. But Poland's contribution, of just €12,000, has been lambasted by newspapers, which point out that the film star couple, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, have independently pledged $1 million (€0.7 million).

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