Increasing climate disasters could drive the EU to revamp its crisis response

While the EU plays an expanding but still limited role in disaster response, climate change effects in the long-term could force the bloc to rethink the management of its capacities, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič told EURACTIV.

By the end of July, the EU had already received six requests for forest fire assistance this year – with France, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Lenarčič’s native Slovenia and Albania twice calling for air support — compared to nine requests for assistance last year.

With Southern Europe not yet halfway through its summer fire season, Lenarčič said the situation on the continent could deteriorate further.

European officials are especially concerned as current forecasts predict an above-average risk of forest fires due to extended drought conditions across the Mediterranean and an ongoing heatwave across the bloc.

“The trends are clear: Nobody is safe and everybody has to work on prevention, preparedness and response,” Lenarčič said.

“We clearly see the added value of a European reserve for the worst disasters, including the worst forest fires,” he added.

Last year was the bloc’s second-worst forest fire season on record, with over half a million hectares burned, compared with over a million hectares in 2017, the previous worst year on record.

National responsibility

The EU, which does not have a fire brigade of its own and by treaty provisions is prohibited to own or buy any planes, mobilises firefighting planes from a pool of aircraft from member states with an existing fleet, including Croatia, France, and Spain.

Emergency response resources under RescEU, the bloc’s disaster emergency response and civil protection resource pool, currently involve coordinating and funding the deployment of 12 firefighting aeroplanes and a helicopter pooled by EU member states.

The EU’s legal framework so far restricts the European Commission from coordinating backup assistance when governments request help.

At the same time, EU member states are responsible for preventing and responding to forest fires and can only request EU assistance when they need backup.

“Civil protection is national competence of member states, so issues raising questions about the preparedness of the EU for forest fires miss this critical point; it can and cannot be prepared for something for which it is not competent or responsible for,” he said.

“With national competence comes national responsibility, and we have been encouraging and supporting member states in meeting this responsibility,” he added.

“We can only go as far as member states are willing to go,” Lenarčič said.

“This work entails first of all detailed discussions with member states about what do they believe they need in such a reserve – its member states that define their needs and scope of the capacities they’re ready to place as the common safety net,” he added.

Asked whether he believes member states are prepared enough to respond to disasters, Lenarčič pointed out that so far, “not a single one of nine requests for assistance went unanswered”, with four of them in under 10 days.

“The measure of success should be whether requests were responded to, not the speed with it with which the fire was put out,” Lenarčič said.

A rescEU fleet and beyond

But Brussels is now planning to finance the purchase by member states of more aerial assets and to station them across the bloc, but in practice could take years to establish.

But as emergency requests are expected to grow due to the effects of climate change, the EU plans to invest in crisis-response aircraft and is in talks with manufacturers to buy more firefighting planes to battle the increased risk of severe wildfires across the bloc.

“Our ambition, which of course depends on the ability of the manufacturer, is to have full rescue aerial firefighting capacity in place before the end of this decade,” he said, adding it would also depend on member states signing the purchase agreements.

According to Lenarčič, securing 22 member states’ commitments to ordering the same model of a plane has contributed to the Canadian manufacturer resuming the initially discontinued production plus serving the EU first.

While joint acquisition would be a “long-term solution,” he said the EU has started calling on member states willing to place part of the national aerial firefighting brigade in a European reserve.

According to Lenarčič, beyond classical natural disaster response, rescEU in the future will also include resources to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents as well as emergency logistics and energy supply.

More money?

The EU’s civil protection budget, which helps countries invest in preventing and responding to crises, was around €900 million in 2021.

Asked about whether this would be enough financial firepower to tackle rising crisis response demands in the future, Lenarčič said, “there is enough funding for what we have in place now, and enough if next year we put in place the same capacity.”

“But in the near future, it will have to be strengthened further, and we don’t hesitate to say if we believe that more should be done,” he said.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]


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