25th Oct 2016

Russian fires, Pakistan floods pose questions for EU crisis management

  • Moscow - the Russian capital is shrouded in smog (Photo: RiMarkin)

The French junior minister for EU affairs, Pierre Lellouche, has renewed calls for a European disaster reaction force in the context of Russia's wildfires.

In an interview on Tuesday (10 August) in French daily Le Figaro, Mr Lellouche said: "At the European level, it would ... be good to have real means of mutual aid in case of emergency."

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"Following the earthquake in Haiti, I emphasised to our European partners the need to pool our means to create a European emergency force. It still does not exist."

He noted that the current EU crisis response tool, the Community Mechanism for Civil Protection, has not been triggered so far amid political pressure in Russia to show that it can handle the situation itself.

"Across the EU, the mechanism of civil emergency has not been activated for the moment because the Russians have not asked," Mr Lellouche said.

"I appreciate the criticism of the Russian and international press about the weaknesses attributed to Russian authorities faced with this catastrophe. The French government's role is not to judge the actions of Moscow. Our role is to assist."

The Mechanism for Civil Protection helps EU countries to co-ordinate bilateral relief efforts through a special office, the Monitoring and Information Centre, in the European Commission's aid directorate.

Individual EU states, such as Bulgaria, France and Italy, have already sent planes, smoke masks and experts to Russia.

But EU-level intervention has so far been limited to informal consultations between aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva and Russian counterparts.

Ms Georgieva, a former Bulgarian official, on Monday told Bulgarian news agency Novinite that she has spoken to Russia's emergencies minister Sergey Shoygu and that she was present during a phone call from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Bulgarian leader Boyko Borisov in which Mr Putin thanked the country for sending firefighters.

"We are viewing the problem in Russia as something very grave, for as we all can see it affects the life and health of many people," she said. "I've lived in Moscow and I know what it means for this town to be surrounded by wildfires."

The Russian fires have caused volatility in grain markets and food prices, affecting the EU, but government experts in Belgium and France say there is no serious threat of nuclear contamination from the old Chernobyl site being stirred up into the air.

A second Haiti?

The French junior minister's reference to Haiti points back to his criticism of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton earlier this year, in which Mr Lellouche said Ms Ashton missed an opportunity to increase EU visibility on the world stage.

In terms of global disaster response, the EU has so far pledged a modest €30 million to help victims of the Pakistan floods.

But with many top EU officials on holiday during Europe's August vacation season and with the Pakistan situation worsening day-by-day, the bloc's crisis reaction capabilities risk looking weak once again.

"The number of people affected by Pakistan's floods is now estimated to be 13.8 million," the UN said in a statement on Monday. "This is a higher figure than those who were affected by the 2005 South Asia tsunami (5 million), the 2005 South Asia earthquake (3 million), or the 2010 Haiti earthquake (3 million)."

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