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Crisis management: disaster response is saving lives, but preparedness and prevention are key

Interview with Janez Lenarčič, European Commissioner for Crisis Management

Janez Lenarčič. Source: European Commission

Disasters can strike anywhere in the world, any day and at any time. The challenge with each crisis is to analyse quickly what has happened, if anyone or how many have been affected and what needs to be done. The European Union and, more specifically, the European Commission, plays an indispensable role in wider management of crises of this kind, whether in Europe or globally. At the Commission, Janez Lenarčič, as Commissioner for Crisis Management, bears primary responsibility for the EU’s disaster response coordination and humanitarian aid efforts. In that capacity, he is the face of EU solidarity in times of disaster. When we spoke with him about the Union’s role and activities in these area, he revealed that there is a lot more to this, ranging from civil protection to enhancing preventive measures and resilience, both within and outside the EU. But also commitment, compassion, knowledge and stamina — or, as the Commissioner called it, ‘collective solidarity’ among those providing help.

By Derek Meijers and Gaston Moonen

Alleviating suffering and strengthening preparedness

From the outset, Janez Lenarčič makes it clear that his job title as ‘European Commissioner for Crisis Management’ should not mislead anyone. ‘It does not imply that I am responsible for any crisis in its entirety. To understand exactly what my mandate is one has to look into the portfolio description. And this is Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.’ In that role, under one hat his focus is on alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable and providing assistance to people whose lives have been upended by disaster, crisis or conflict. ‘And under my other hat, I am responsible to coordinate and strengthen our response to as well as our collective preparedness to emergencies and disasters, both at home and globally. Of course the pandemic and accompanying crisis have had many implications for both preparedness and response, and continue to do so. Throughout this period, I have been reminded daily of the value of collective solidarity, and it is important that we continue to foster greater cooperation and build on this value of solidarity over the coming years.’

The Commissioner was heavily involved in the COVID‑19 crisis from the very beginning. In January 2020, well before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, he and his staff were on the case. ‘For instance, we started with providing assistance to China, which asked for our help, because China ran out of personal protective equipment. Of course, later on Europe faced the same situation but we should not forget that the first major country that ran out of protective equipment and facing this epidemic was China. At the same time, it is also the biggest producer in the world of protective equipment and we organised the assistance that was provided to China by EU Member States at the request of China.’ He explains that, through the Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), his services started to organise repatriations of European citizens from China. ‘This endeavour continued over several months because, when the pandemic struck all over the world, it resulted, among other things, in the grounding of planes and closing of airports.’ By organising ad hoc evacuation and repatriation flights, over the months the Civil Protection Mechanism ensured the return of about 100 000 EU citizens. With some pride, he adds: ‘Which made it one of the biggest EU repatriation operations ever.’

The intensity continued, the Commissioner explains, since through the UCPM he was heavily involved in providing millions of items of equipment to EU Member States and a number of third countries. ‘And this activity is continuing. Finally, when at the beginning of the pandemic there were global shortages of personal protective equipment, we decided to establish a safety net in the form of a European stockpile of medical countermeasures.’ The stockpile consists primarily of medical protective equipment, ventilators and certain other items to prevent similar shortages from happening again. Now that it has been constituted, the stockpile will be available for years to come. ‘So if the pandemic continues for much longer, we will have a last resort reserve.’

When asked how this relates to the new European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority — HERA, which was announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address in September 2021, Janez Lenarčič points out that the UCPM will be one of the Commission’s ‘contributing programmes’ to the HERA authority. Since an important part of HERA’s work is stockpiling, this will require ample coordination. ‘Which I think will be ensured, as the Commissioner for Crisis Management has a seat on the coordination committee which is to steer the activities of HERA. This includes what to stockpile, and how much.’

The need for more Europe in times of crisis

For the Commissioner, the creation of HERA, while important, is certainly not the only outcome of the COVID‑19 crisis. He thinks several lessons can be drawn from it, also considering the role of the EU and its Member States. ‘I am deeply convinced that the key lessons we all should learn from the pandemic is that there has to be more Europe in such situations. Whenever we are dealing with a crisis that affects several, most or all EU Member States, a crisis that has transboundary impact – in this case even a global dimension — there is a need to do more at the European level.’ However, for him this does not necessarily mean the transfer of competences to the EU. ‘We have the Treaty, the Treaty is very clear: issues like health, civil protection and others are the competence of the Member States. But even if that is so, we should try to have better coordination at EU level. So that the Member States act in a coordinated and connected manner.’

Janez Lenarčič considers that the Member States and the EU did eventually achieve coordination in most areas, despite a rocky start. ‘In the beginning, in March 2020, there were some immediate reactions to this new crisis, with the virus spreading, when Member States started to close their borders in a fairly uncoordinated, unilateral manner, not even talking to the neighbours on the other side of the border. Causing huge queues of trucks and cars, etc. Or they blocked exports of protective equipment that were meant for other Member States, thus violating the Single Market rules.’

However, he also observes that, after a few days, and forceful intervention by the European Commission, Europe moved on from this unilateral and uncoordinated approach. ‘Also because everybody realised that this was no way to tackle the challenge.’ In his view, the lesson was learned quickly. ‘Because very soon the Member States decided to entrust the Commission with the procurement of vaccines. And now, in spite of preliminary delays at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, every EU citizen has access to full COVID‑19 vaccines and even boosters, meaning a possibility to get the best protection there is.’

For the Commissioner, strategic reserve stockpiling is another example of a task relating to the COVID‑19 crisis that was smoothly enabled at the EU level, as it was placed under rescEU, the strand of the UCPM whose purpose is to establish a new European reserve of resources, ranging from planes to medical equipment, including protective materials. ‘This reserve was set up in a record short time. This task was defined few days before 19 March when we had the implementing decision published in the EU’s Official Journal, expanding the rescue reserve to include medical measures.’ He explains that the European medical reserve was set up in the following weeks and months. ‘And has been used extensively, since we have distributed items from the reserve to a number of Member States.’

For the Commissioner this reserve provides an example of how the EU and its Member States need to do more together. ‘When I say there is a need for more Europe, I am not saying we need additional competences to strengthen the EU level, because that would entail a Treaty change, and that is an arduous and complex process. However, even when certain areas are the exclusive competence of Member States, there is the possibility and also the need to do more together.’

No conditions attached to humanitarian aid

The COVID‑19 pandemic is unique in its kind and intensity, even for the Commissioner, who deals with crises on a daily basis. But most crises relate to disasters that cause human misery and hardship, requiring humanitarian aid. This was by no means a new area for Janez Lenarčič when he became Commissioner for Crisis Management, since he had been working for several years on humanitarian matters at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE). Everyone agrees that the EU is a key player in the world in this area. ‘I am responsible for ensuring that we respond quickly and bring the different strands of work together. My role is also to be the face of EU solidarity in times of disaster, and to raise the attention of other donors to respond to acute humanitarian crises, including those that are not in the headlines.’

Figures show that the Union, together with its Member States, is the biggest donor of humanitarian aid globally. ‘A second very important fact is that the EU is a principled donor.’ He explains that EU decisions on where and to whom to provide humanitarian aid are based exclusively on the focal principles for humanitarian action, which are humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. ‘To put it in the simplest possible terms: we channel humanitarian aid exclusively on the basis of the needs. Without any regard to political or other situations.’

The Commissioner underlines that EU humanitarian aid is covered by these principles. ‘This is very important because we do not instrumentalise humanitarian aid for political, economic or other objectives.’ The EU’s objective in humanitarian aid is to alleviate suffering and save lives. No strings attached. ‘The only thing that we demand when we operate in any country where there are humanitarian needs is that there is full access for our humanitarian aid and our humanitarian workers, who are usually members of humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross family or NGOs. We demand full access and safety for lives, and respect for international humanitarian law in general and the four principles I mentioned earlier.’ He adds that this approach places the EU in the front row of what are known as ‘good humanitarian donors.’

Besides the action he took in relation to the pandemic, the Commissioner’s activities in the area of humanitarian response have been escalating. ‘Humanitarian needs were already going up steadily, especially due to the proliferation of conflicts, protracted conflicts that have been going on for decades and remain unresolved, climate change and its impacts, environmental degradation, demographic pressure. These — as we call them — drivers have already resulted in increasing humanitarian needs in the past.’ However, he stresses that the pandemic, when it struck in 2020, only aggravated this trend. ‘We have seen a spike in humanitarian needs, while at the same time the funding for humanitarian aid has not gone up that fast. We do increase humanitarian aid substantially but the increase in the needs is much faster. This leads to an increase in the funding gap.’

To address the gap but also other major challenges to humanitarian aid, in March 2021 the Commission issued a communication on EU humanitarian action, in which the Commissioner formulated the institution’s approach to what he labels ‘an unsustainable situation’ and charting how to deal with it. For Janez Lenarčič, the first thing is to increase humanitarian funding by encouraging countries that could do more to provide more humanitarian aid. In other words, to expand the common base. ‘Because at the moment, only a handful of big donors, the EU among them, provide the overwhelming majority of global humanitarian aid. While many others who could do more are not making their best effort.’ In addition, he thinks the Commission needs to look at whether it could be using the available resources in a more effective way. ‘We have identified a number of possible options for achieving that.’ As the third element, he refers to efforts to reduce the need for humanitarian aid. ‘For this to happen we have to work more forcefully on ending conflicts and preventing new ones as well as putting the respect of international humanitarian law at the centre of our external action in order to protect innocent civilians and preserve humanitarian space.’

Regarding the last aspect, the Commissioner has to rely on others, since reducing needs is not the work of humanitarians alone. ‘On the humanitarian aid side, we consider to be particularly promising the nexus approach, which means close cooperation between humanitarian, development, and peace actors. So joint action should be aimed at ending conflicts, providing longer-term development assistance, so as to enable people to stand on their own feet and not depend anymore on humanitarian aid.’ Ultimately, the nexus approach is another way of reducing, or trying to reduce, the financial burden of humanitarian aid in the future.

Prevention is the future

When speaking about the nexus approach the link is easily made to prevention, an issue which the Commissioner considers essential in many respects to keep human suffering and damage, and therefore the need for humanitarian aid but also civil protection activation, to a minimum. He underlines that, as well as the capacity to respond to crises after they occur, the crisis management cycle has two other elements: prevention and preparedness. ‘We try to treat all three as equally important, but this is not always easy in a political sense because once there is a disaster, everybody will be in favour of a quick and decisive response. But if you are not yet facing a disaster or an imminent crisis it is more difficult to mobilise the necessary resources to tackle prevention and preparedness, to try to prevent what we can still prevent. And to prepare for all the incidents that cannot be prevented, like for instance earthquakes.’

This is also why he thinks the approach to climate change has such a bearing on his field of crisis management. ‘Climate change is in my view already climate crisis. We are already witnessing a very clear impact of climate crisis on our environment, on our livelihoods.’ Janez Lenarčič refers to last summer’s crisis events, starting with the terrible floods in northern Europe, and continuing with unprecedented forest fires throughout the Mediterranean in particular. ‘We will see more of that. Therefore we have to act, not only in building our response capacity, not only in preparing ourselves, but also in trying to prevent what we can still prevent. And the Commission is doing that. Because our ambition to create Europe by 2050 as a climate-neutral continent is a prevention measure! To prevent worse than what we already expect.’ In this sense, one can draw the parallel that disaster prevention relates to climate mitigation, and disaster response to climate adaptation.

UN and EU — partners on several accounts

The EU is not only a big player when coordinating humanitarian aid and providing relief through its partner organisations, but also a big donor, mostly to the UN. According to the Commissioner, there is good reason for this. ‘The role of the UN in humanitarian affairs is most important in two aspects. One aspect is as a coordinating body for global humanitarian activities. The EU strongly supports that role, which is performed by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA).’ He explains that there are many donors — the EU, the US, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, etc. — although not as many as he would like to see. The number of donors means that action must be coordinated, and this also goes for the activities of humanitarian partners on the ground. ‘So that they do not all go to one place and leave some other place unattended. I cannot overemphasise the coordinating role, and I believe that the UN is best positioned to assume this role. In every country where there is a humanitarian situation there is a UN coordinator, and the EU strongly supports that role.’

The second important aspect Janez Lenarčič identifies regarding the UN is when it acts as the EU’s humanitarian partner on the ground. He mentions the many UN agencies among the EU’s key humanitarian partners, such as the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the WHO — mainly during but also before the pandemic. ‘These UN agencies have enormous expertise, they also have some unmatched resources. For example, the World Food Programme has unmatched logistical resources, which enables them to tackle any looming food crisis in a very effective manner.’ So clearly a number of UN organisations are indispensable partners in humanitarian aid for the EU. But the Commissioner underlines that they are not the only ones. ‘As I already said, we work with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent family. In addition to that, very important partners of ours are international NGOs. They have great capacity, great skills and also, in many cases, a unique ability to address humanitarian needs.’

Robust accountability ensures local conditions are given consideration

When discussing accountability issues and needs in humanitarian aid action, the Commissioner is unequivocal: ‘This was and is on top of our agenda, to insist on ability, also when it comes to sound financial management. Not only for the EU as a donor, for example towards the UN, but towards the humanitarian agencies who are our partners. To have robust safeguards in place, aimed at preventing misuse of funding. And, when something inappropriate happens anyway, to have quick remedial procedures in place.’

Janez Lenarčič considers the emergency aspect is no excuse for foregoing the proper auditing of action in such situations, reiterating that, as a donor, the Commission demands strong audits from its partners implementing the various programmes and projects on the ground. ‘There also has to be thorough auditing when it comes to emergency situations. But it has to be adapted to the circumstances in which our partners operate. Because in some circumstances there is a lack of security that affects the ability of our partners to do their work. In other situations you do not have a functioning banking system — such as the situation in Afghanistan. Therefore, you cannot expect the usual standards of financial management from all places that we need to operate in. I have to say that in our operations with the ECA we have always received full understanding of the specificities of our work.’ In his view, therefore, auditing is adapted to these specificities.

When speaking about what he would like the ECA to assess as an audit topic in his area of responsibility, the Commissioner is very clear: ‘To the extent that it falls in the mandate of the ECA, I would welcome ECA involvement in prevention. Meaning, whenever funding is allocated, it should also be audited from the sense that it is well spent in view of the disaster prevention or disaster risk reduction perspective.’ He gives a specific illustration from the common agricultural policy. ‘I would welcome the ECA’s specific assessment when there is funding channelled into certain crops or plants. The ECA could assess this from the viewpoint of disaster risk reduction.’ In his view, this will be useful, for example, where EU-funded crops that are not risk-preventing are to be planted in a region particularly susceptible to drought. ‘Auditing should not only be a technical exercise, checking whether certain numbers match up. No, it also has to be done in the sense of whether the funding was done effectively from the perspective of disaster risk reduction.’ The Commissioner believes there is room for such an assessment without stepping into the role of decision-maker. ‘I would very much welcome such an angle! Money that is spent on unsustainable activities and can increase the risk for disaster is certainly not money well spent.’

How prepared can you be?

The importance of prevention as an element in the crisis management cycle becomes even clearer when discussing disaster preparedness in the light of the Commissioner’s responsibility for the UCPM and Member States’ responsibilities and actions. Janez Lenarčič mentions a visit he made to Greece after the serious Mediterranean wildfires last August. ‘Greece is fully aware of the importance of capacity-building for disaster response. Greece actually has one of the biggest aerial firefighting fleets in Europe. This enables them to deal with five or six peaks of forest fires simultaneously. But this year they had 15 or 20. So how prepared can you be?’

The Commissioner refers to a report of some years ago which concluded that Greece had done more than was needed on response capacity, but not enough on prevention. ‘This is, unfortunately, a very good illustration of my points on prevention, of the fact that building a response capacity alone is not going to solve the problem. And they are very well aware of that. Because if we do not do anything on the climate front, you will have not 20 but perhaps 50 or 100 wildfires at the same time. Again: how prepared can you be?’

According to the Commissioner, all three stages of crisis management must go hand in hand. ‘But that is easier said than done. Why? Because politicians as well as voters are prepared to invest in response capacity. The experience is vivid, is fresh. So when there is a fire season like this year there is of course the readiness of governments and voters to accept greater investment in response capacity because we will have to tackle these fires.’ He argues that prevention is different because it has no immediate visible impact. ‘When you work on prevention you are actually working on no impact. Because things that you prevent do not happen! And that makes it politically difficult to mobilise resources.’

Besides investment, prevention also requires something else: a change in behaviour. The impact of which is often only visible in the distant future. Janez Lenarčič: ‘We see EU climate action as an important part of risk reduction and crisis prevention. And you can see how difficult the discussions that we have are. When the Commission says, by 2035 no more cars in Europe may be sold with an internal combustion engine, so no diesel and petrol cars anymore. Then you immediately hear complaints from Member States which are producing these cars. These are difficult discussions because the immediate impact you see when you demand a change in behaviour is negative.’ He refers to people’s reactions when told they will have to buy electric cars: much more expensive, less range, charging much longer, etc. ‘Changing behaviour entails sacrifices, entails some difficult decisions. While the immediate positive impact is not there, it comes later in the form of something that has not happened.’ He concludes that it is difficult both for politicians and for citizens to accept the mobilisation of resources for disaster prevention. ‘They don’t see the immediate positive impact of it.’

European solidarity passing the test but… ?

After his first year in office as Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič identified solidarity as the core element of emergency action. One year later, with the pandemic still ongoing, as well as a number of man-made crises and natural disasters, ranging from Afghanistan to Haiti, from floods to wildfires, causing widespread hunger or calling other UN Sustainable Development Goals into question, the Commissioner considers that solidarity is still at the centre of what he and his staff do. ‘In both parts of my mandate, solidarity, with no strings attached, so pure solidarity of help for the person in need. Same for civil protection. Civil protection is the face of European solidarity in the EU and globally. Because our Union Civil Protection Mechanism is accessible to any country of the world. Any country of the world can turn to the Mechanism, ask for assistance and get it.’

The Commissioner gives as an example the earthquake situation in Haiti. ‘We were all summer in crisis mode relating to floods, regarding forest fires in Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Albania, Italia and Algeria. They all asked for our assistance and they got it. And then the earthquake hit Haiti, an awful event, with over 2 200 people who died and enormous damage. I visited the country in the aftermath to see it myself.’ He underlines that the country already has many political, economic, social and security challenges. ‘This added so much to the misery of so many people. I should also mention here the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the imminent looming collapse of health, education and other public services. In all these cases, we were able to count on European solidarity. Not one request for assistance, even though there were so many, went unanswered! We were able, together with the Member States, to mobilise enough resources to respond favourably to all of them.’ As examples of aid provided, he mentions emergency medical teams, hospitals, water purification stations, communication equipment, humanitarian supplies for Haiti, and the humanitarian flights to Kabul. ‘Because when the airport was not accessible for commercial flights we set up the EU humanitarian air bridge, which is used for places and situations when there are no commercial alternatives.’

Janez Lenarčič concludes that 2021 has been a testing year, with above all a testing summer. And that EU solidarity has come through the test well. ‘But as we discussed before on how prepared we can be, I would now say: how much solidarity can we expect? Is there a limit? I hope not, and I am grateful to everyone who has offered effective assistance under very trying circumstances. But I do think we all have to do more in order to deal with this threat of increasing strain on the EU’s and Member States’ capacities and consequently ability to display solidarity.’ For the Commissioner, the best way forward is to focus more on prevention. ‘I mentioned it a few times already. Prevention, meaning what we can still prevent in relation to climate change. What we can still prevent in terms of humanitarian need, like the proliferation of conflicts, ending old protracted ones, strengthening the respect of international humanitarian law, working on demographic pressures, working on environmental degradation, etc. To finish with the shortest possible answer to your question on how I would address the experience of my second year: we need more solidarity and more prevention!’

This article was first published on the 3/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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