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EU Civil Protection Mechanism: History and Perspectives

EU Civil Protection Mechanism

Federico Iannuli, consultant at Lisbon Council asbl

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism was created in 2001 to coordinate member states’ Civil Protection Corps and to help countries in need in the EU and worldwide. Since then, it has been reformed and improved to guarantee effectiveness in every emergency situation, but there are Horizon EU projects that can enhance it even further to save as many lives as possible all over the world.

Civil Protection

The European Union is one of the safest places to live on Earth, but the risk of natural disasters cannot be reduced to zero anywhere in the world. In fact, in the last 40 years, almost 50 million people in the EU were affected by disasters that cost €12 billion per year to Member States (European Commission, 2023b). To cope with this possibility, countries all over the world created the Civil Protection institution (European Council, 2023; European Commission, 2023b) – a set of measures and actions governments, organisations, and individuals take to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters or emergencies, aiming to reduce the negative impacts of disasters on people, property, and the environment (TEMA, 2023a).

So Civil Protection is essential in every part of a crisis, even before it occurs. In fact, the institution's work starts with risk assessments, planning actions, and evaluation of risk management capacities, processes crucial for prevention, preparedness, and emergency response (Dipartimento della Protezione Civile, 2020). Nevertheless, of course, the disaster response is the most important part and can be classified depending on the nature of the disaster. Moreover, Civil Protection has a wide variety of tools that can be applied to the response, as its members can conduct several operations like search and rescue, forest and urban firefighting, medical personnel deployment, medical equipment and medicines delivering, water purification, building temporary emergency shelters, and safe repatriation of EU citizens (European Council, 2023).

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism

People, property, environment, and cultural heritage protection in the EU is primarily a national responsibility. However, as it is vital, the European Commission established the EU Civil Protection Mechanism that complements, supports, coordinates and promotes cross-border cooperation to ensure that aid is provided where needed, pool the expertise and capacities of first responders and avoid duplication of relief efforts (European Commission, 2023a; European Commission, 2023b; European Council, 2023).

Created in October 2001, the Mechanism aims to strengthen cooperation between the EU countries and nine participating states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Türkiye, and Ukraine. Its goal is to enhance cooperation among national civil protection authorities, increase public awareness and preparedness for disasters and facilitate quick, effective, coordinated assistance to affected populations. The possibility to call on the EU civil protection mechanism for help is not exclusively for those participating, but for any country in the world, the United Nations and its agencies and other international organisations. Therefore, the European Commission is key in coordinating the response to disasters in Europe and beyond, contributing to at least 75% of deployments' transport and operational costs (Dipartimento della Protezione Civile, 2020; Environmental Emergencies Centre, 2020; Council of the EU, 2021; European Commission, 2023a; European Council, 2023). The EU Civil Protection Mechanism includes a European civil protection pool of national resources and capacities member states provide for immediate deployment inside or outside the EU. The Pool, the backbone of the Mechanism, allows for a faster and more reliable EU response to disasters (Dipartimento della Protezione Civile, 2020; Council of the EU, 2021; European Commission, 2023a; European Council, 2023).

The operational heart of the Mechanism is the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) which acts as a coordination hub to facilitate coherent European response during emergencies. It monitors events around the globe 24/7 and coordinates all EU member states, the nine additional participating states, the affected country, and humanitarian and civil protection experts. Following a country's request for assistance, the Centre provides emergency communications and monitoring tools through a direct link with national civil protection authorities, enabling real-time information exchange between countries through a web-based platform. But mainly, it coordinates the EU's disaster response efforts together with the delivery of assistance to countries affected by disasters: from necessities to advice, from civil defence teams to specialised equipment (Dipartimento della Protezione Civile, 2020; Environmental Emergencies Centre, 2020; European Commission, 2022; European Commission, 2023a; European Council, 2023).

Improving the Mechanism: rescEU and beyond

Given the importance and effectiveness of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, the European Commission decided to upgrade it and, in 2019, created rescEU: fully financed by the EU, it is an additional reserve of resources to enhance the response to emerging crises that can overwhelm existing capacities. The types of crises considered vary from wildfires to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents, so the reserve comprises numerous tools (Council of the EU, 2021; European Commission, 2022; European Commission, 2023a). First of all, rescEU includes a fleet of firefighting planes and helicopters, that was improved last year thanks to Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Sweden putting together 12 firefighting planes and 1 helicopter (European Commission, 2022; European Council, 2023). Then, it can provide medical evacuation planes, emergency medical teams and field hospitals, a stockpile of medical equipment and mobile laboratory capacities for sanitary emergencies, like Covid-19 or other pandemics (European Commission, 2022; European Council, 2023). Moreover, in rescEU, there are expert teams, equipment, and devices to detect, decontaminate and stockpile to respond to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents (European Commission, 2022; European Council, 2023). Last, they can help with logistics, transport and temporary shelters to guarantee thousands of people a safe and secure residence (European Commission, 2022; European Council, 2023).

To further enhance the capacity of intervention of the Mechanism, some projects aim to innovate Disaster Management and Emergency Response, among those, there is TEMA. In the Horizon EU framework, Trusted Extremely Precise Mapping and Prediction for Emergency Management (TEMA) uses new technologies to create a precise, real-time-updated 3D map that can also predict disaster evolution. They will then create a platform for communication and extended reality that helps first rescuers save lives in an emergency's early hours (TEMA, 2023b).

The importance of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism can be understood by its numbers. Since 2001, it has been activated more than 600 times to help people worldwide, and from 2006 it participated in 25% of UN response missions (Environmental Emergencies Centre, 2020 European Council, 2023; European Commission, 2023a). So, it is critical for people all over the world that the European Commission and projects like TEMA keep improving this instrument to save as many lives as possible in future crises.