Commission heeds Sarkozy’s request for EU crisis response force

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Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid and crisis response, will soon present a political proposal to reinforce the EU's capacity to respond to crises, the European Commission said yesterday (16 August). The announcement appears to represent a response to recent calls from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, inspired by the unprecedented floods in Pakistan.

On 15 August Sarkozy sent a letter to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso arguing that the recent earthquake in Haiti, fires in Russia this summer and the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Pakistan – where millions of people are suffering from unprecedented floods – require total EU mobilisation.

"For obvious humanitarian and political reasons, Europe should manifest its solidarity with the Pakistani population in a visible way. The interest of Europe is to help the development and the stability of this country," Sarkozy writes in the letter.

More than two weeks after floods first plunged Pakistan into chaos, the waters are still rising across the southern plains of Sindh province, Euronews reported. Meanwhile, the death toll from the flooding is now at 1,463, the National Disaster Management Authority said on Sunday (15 August).

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said on Saturday (14 August) that as many as 20 million of his countrymen had been affected by the flooding.

At the same time, agencies report that help has reached only a handful of those affected, and resentment over the lack of governmental and international help is reportedly strengthening the position of Taliban insurgents and weakening the country's authorities.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was in the flood-affected areas on Sunday and appealed to the international community to provide unprecedented assistance.

The EU can do more in committing to cover the immediate humanitarian needs to a greater extent, in coordination with its member states and the UN, Sarkozy writes. He further called on the Union to draw conclusions from the recent disasters and put in place a genuine European crisis response capacity, based on the national capabilities of EU countries. France will soon table proposals in that sense, he adds.

Commission spokesperson Ferran Tarradellas told journalists yesterday that a Commission paper regarding Sarkozy's proposal would be made public immediately after the summer recess.

Since Commissioner Georgieva took her post, she has constantly announced her intention to table political proposals to reinforce Europe's crisis response capacity, Tarradellas said.

Indeed, Georgieva presented her ambitions in that sense at her confirmation hearing in the European Parliament last February (EURACTIV 04/02/10).

She has been actively working on the issue since her first day in office, has consulted several member states and the European Parliament and is going to come up with a paper on boosting Europe's capacity to respond to civilian crises immediately after the summer. So work is quite advanced, Tarradellas said.

Asked to disclose details of Georgieva's draft, her spokesperson said that at this stage he could only say that the philosophy was that the existing mechanism by which the European civil protection mechanism operates should be reinforced.

Under this mechanism, the affected member states call on other EU countries for solidarity, while the European Commission plays a coordinating role. The Commission receives offers from the member countries providing help and transmits these to the member state or third country in trouble, he explained.

As for assistance to Pakistan, Tarradellas said that Georgieva had interrupted her holiday due to the humanitarian crisis and was working from Brussels. He said the commissioner had thus far allocated 40 million euro to Pakistan, which in his words made the Commission the biggest donor of humanitarian aid to Pakistan at this time.

Asked if this aid would prove insufficient considering the situation on the ground, Tarradellas explained that the assistance was provided according to expert advice and absorption capacity on the ground.

The tragedy in Pakistan is so big that Europe will certainly have to continue to provide aid and have presence there, he said. But he insisted that the UN should lead the humanitarian effort in Pakistan.

Tarradellas also said that the increasing number of natural disasters were a result of climate change. Asked specifically if the floods in Pakistan were a consequence of climate change, he retracted, saying that was a question nobody could answer.

International aid agency Oxfam said on 15 August that donors had shown a lack of leadership and had failed to respond to the humanitarian disaster in Pakistan.

Neva Khan, Oxfam's country director in Pakistan, said "the speed with which the situation is deteriorating is frightening. Huge swathes of the country remain underwater, and we are extremely concerned about the risk of diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. Communities desperately need clean water, latrines and hygiene supplies, but the resources currently available cover only a fraction of what is required."

"We hope that Mr. Ban Ki Moon's visit to Pakistan will inspire the world's wealthiest countries to respond more quickly to this grave humanitarian crisis," she added. 

The worst floods in decades in Pakistan have left millions without clean water, food and homes, Reuters reported.

The UN has reported the first case of cholera and warned of other imminent waterborne diseases, including typhoid fever, shigellosis and hepatitis A and E, and vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue. Aid agencies like Save the Children have already seen cases of pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria.

Political destabilisation is another risk factor. Public anger has grown during the two weeks of flooding, highlighting potential political troubles for an unpopular government overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.

Hundreds of villages across Pakistan in an area roughly the size of Italy have been marooned, highways have been cut in half and thousands of homeless people have been forced to set up tarpaulin tents along the side of roads.

On Sunday night, hundreds of villagers burnt tyres and chanted "down with the government" in Punjab province.

Nevertheless, a military coup is considered unlikely. The army's priority is fighting Taliban insurgents, and seizing power during a disaster would make no sense, analysts say.

The government has been under fire for its perceived inadequate response. Islamic charities, some linked to militant groups, have stepped in to provide aid to flood victims, possibly gaining supporters at the expense of the state.

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