RescEU: Commission proposes a new European system to respond to natural disasters

Climate change has brought a significant rise in intense and unpredictable extreme weather events, such as fiercer forest fires in Southern Europe and greater storms with risk of flooding. In addition to the human cost, these come with heavy economic costs – since 1980, Member States have lost over 360 billion euros through extreme weather and climate events – and environmental costs, as forest fires exacerbate climate change through increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is not the only challenge. Europe has recently faced several terrorist attacks that required immediate attention and reaction, not to mention health emergencies such as epidemics (Ebola and Zika viruses). With these new challenges, the European Commission has seen an increased need for a change in EU crisis management.

The Commission has proposed a new way to respond which it says will increase citizens’ protection from these disasters. The proposal would establish a new European system with dedicated EU assets, called “rescEU”.  The aims of the proposal, according to the Commission, are twofold; firstly, it would push for an EU-scale approach to tackle crises more effectively and efficiently, and secondly, it would aim to ensure Member States use all the instruments at their disposal to not only respond to disasters, but to prepare for and prevent them as well.

In this briefing, after a brief analysis of the existing system, we will analyse the key elements of the Commission’s proposal and what would change in practice if the new mechanism becomes operational.

The current system: The European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) and its loopholes

The Civil Protection Mechanism, established in 2001, is a coordination mechanism that helps national civil protection authorities across Europe. It includes all Member States as well as six other European countries: Iceland, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Turkey and the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It can be initiated whenever a disaster strikes and national capacities are insufficient. It works in the following way:  a Member State or a third country requests assistance via the European Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). Other Member States then decide on an offer of assistance to the country in need.

To enable that to happen, a Voluntary Pool of Assets was established which combines the resources of Member States to use them in another country in need. Member States are not obliged to offer any assets as it works on a voluntary basis.

The UCPM has thus three main tasks. First, it establishes a system of civil protection cooperation and development of EU emergency response capacity. Second, it offers a coordination platform for civil protection and humanitarian aid.  Lastly, it acts as a coordinator at the EU inter-institutional level, enhancing crisis response.

However, after the recent natural disasters, it was noticed that this mechanism did not respond sufficiently to the crises. There are two main loopholes in the current system.  To begin with, there is not enough incentive for Member States to participate in the Voluntary Pool of Assets due to financial restrictions. The EU budget finances only a share of the cost: a part of the transport costs. The problem is that transport costs, or getting a plane from one country to another, are reasonable compared to the cost of operations, or making sure that plane operates in the country in need for a certain period of time. Consequently, responses were too slow due to a limited availability of assets such as fleet or firefighting planes.

This exposed the underperformance of the current system. In other words, due to a lack of incentive for Member States to participate in the Voluntary Pool of Assets, there was a problem of resources and efficiency. Therefore, the European Commission decided to launch a new initiative which it says will tackle these challenges, as well as increase the prevention measures to limit any damages.

rescEU: A new collective European response to disasters

To enable a better EU response to disasters, the European Commission presented a proposal for a Decision which would amend Decision No 1313/2013/EU establishing the UCPM. The proposal aims to increase the capacity to be deployed at time of need. It was accompanied by a Communication explaining the context of the proposal and the Commission's plans to strengthen the functioning of the UCPM. Overall, the proposal contains two new main initiatives that would reinforce EU actions.

Firstly, the Commission’s proposal aims to improve the existing Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism by creating a European Civil Protection Pool of assets, or resources that the EU crisis response can count on at any given point in time. These include assets such as firefighting teams and aircraft, flood containment, water purification and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection and sampling.

The EU Civil Protection Pool would build upon the existing 'European Emergency Response Capacity', which was established in October 2014 and was commonly known as the voluntary pool. Currently, Member States participating in this voluntary pool receive from the EU budget a reimbursement covering a part of the transportation cost incurred during the UCPM operation. Under the new system, Member States would receive higher co-financing rates of capacities that are put at the disposal of the European Civil Protection Pool. In particular, assets committed to the EU Civil Protection Pool would benefit from a 75% coverage of all costs incurred during UCPM operations within the Union, including adaptation, repair, transportation and operational costs. The European Commission aims in this way to provide more incentives for Member States to participate in the European Civil Protection Pool.

Additionally, given the increased EU financial support, after an activation of the Union's Civil Protection Mechanism is received the assets committed to the European Civil Protection Pool would be available for deployment at the request of the Commission, unless a Member State is faced with an exceptional situation substantially affecting the discharge of national tasks. Under the current mechanism, Member States provide assets to the voluntary pool that the Commission can request, but the Member States are not obliged to offer assistance.

Secondly, to overcome the existing challenges, the European Commission proposed to create a dedicated reserve of EU assets: rescEU. The latter would hold capacities necessary to respond to known possible disasters, such as aerial forest firefighting planes, field hospitals and emergency medical teams. These would not only serve to complement existing national response capacities but would also be fully financed by the EU. The Commission would serve as a control authority, deciding the allocation of the deployments. The role of rescEU would be to act only when national capacities are lacking. The proposal still emphasises the need for local authorities to improve and strengthen their disaster response in the first place.

According to the Commission, rescEU would enable a prompter response with fewer bureaucratic procedures, as it would act immediately by providing the necessary capacity when requested by a state in need.

In short, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism would be based on sharing assets in the European Civil Protection Pool. Where capacity was lacking, rescEU would act as a last resort and be mobilised immediately. This would mean a more rapid and efficient response to disasters within and outside the EU.

Better prevention and preparedness 

Following its evaluation of the UCPM the European Commission found the need to improve Member States’ prevention and preparedness measures. This means reducing risks and impacts in the event of any disaster; countries would then be better prepared and thus reduce the response needs.

According to the proposal, the Commission’s plan to improve disaster prevention and preparedness would be threefold. First, it would support national prevention and preparedness by requesting Member States to share national prevention strategies with the Commission by 31 January 2019 and every three years thereafter. The Commission would therefore be in a position to monitor and report on the implementation of preparedness plans and prevention.

Second, it would develop a EU Civil Protection Knowledge Network that would work closely in collaboration with the Disaster Risk Management Knowledge Centre (DRMKC), put in place in 2015. The latter already provides a networked approach to the disaster risk management between the Commission and the Member States, as well as states beyond the European Union. The Knowledge Network’s aim would be to improve the efficiency of the existing EU disaster management. It would consist of specialised exercise and training centres to exchange international and European best practices. In other words, it would enable national civil protection authorities to be trained and to share information, ultimately creating a “common Union disaster preparedness culture”.

Lastly, the Commission intends to push for greater crisis prevention through emphasising links with other EU policies, such as climate change adaptation, warning systems and disaster preparedness.

How would rescEU work in practice?

The new system would be conducted in four steps. The first step is for the Member State, or any other international organisation or third country, to request activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, asking for support in the event of having insufficient capacity in a time of crisis. As a second step, the European Commission’s Emergency Response and Coordination Centre would receive the request for assistance; it would alert the other participating states in the Mechanism and request them to mobilise the assets that they put at disposal under the European Civil Protection Pool. Member States can refuse to mobile these assets only if they are faced with an exceptional situation substantially affecting the discharge of national tasks, preventing them from keeping those response capacities available.

If the Emergency Response and Coordination Centre determines that the capacities in the European Civil Protection Pool are insufficient to deal with the disaster, the Commission would decide to deploy rescEU’s capacities. The latter would be focused on four different areas of action: field hospital and emergency medical assistance; urban search and rescue capacities; firefighting aircraft; and high-capacity pumping equipment for floods.

The final step would be the allocation of rescEU’s capacities to the country in need. The Commission and the country concerned would collaborate closely during the operation.

Next steps 

The Commission’s proposal for a Decision has been sent to the European Parliament and to the Council for consideration.

These institutions are expected to express their positions on the Commission’s proposal before starting inter-institutional negotiations, with a view to reaching a first reading agreement.

The Communication has also been sent to the European Parliament and the Council for consideration. Either or both institutions may decide to formally respond in the coming months.

Relevant Acts

  • Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council of 30 August 2017 on the Interim Evaluation of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism for the period 2014-2016 COM(2017)460
  • Proposal for a Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 November 2017 amending Decision No 1313/2013/EU on a Union Civil Protection Mechanism COM(2017)772
  • Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council and the Committee of the Regions of 23 November 2017 on Strengthening EU Disaster Management: rescEU Solidarity with Responsibility COM(2017)773