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Janez Lenarčič, Source: Hearing of Janez Lenarčič (Slovenia) - Crisis management by European Parliament on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

EU Commissioner Janez Lenarčič: Local authorities know better than anybody the reality on the ground and can best plan for the recovery after a disaster

EU Commissioner Janez Lenarčič: Local authorities know better than anybody the reality on the ground and can best plan for the recovery after a disaster

Interview with EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič

Janez Lenarčič is the European Commissioner for Crisis Management, hailing from Slovenia. 

Commissioner Lenarčič, less than a year into your term, the EU found itself in one the biggest crises it has ever faced. As Commissioner for Crisis Management, how would you evaluate the Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The European Commission reacted swiftly and robustly in response to the challenges brought by this pandemic, despite the fact that matters of health, civil protection and border management are national competence. In such cross-border events, the Commission has a supportive role only. Hence, from the early outset, we have persistently urged the Member States to raise their levels of preparedness.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for a short period, there was some lack of coordination among the Member States. Mostly in the area of national competence, like closing down borders without announcing your intentions to your neighbour first.

Against this background, the Commission took action where it could, proactively. By issuing hundreds of recommendations, aiming to support Member States on various issues, linked to this crisis that would ease their activities and decisions in this complex situation.

In all fairness, however, I wish to recall the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed Europe as something that is unprecedented – at least in the sense of what we have seen in the past 100 years. In this respect, hardly anyone could have expected this, at least not in such proportions.

Solidarity and the European Union go hand-in-hand. Yet during the first weeks of the pandemic, Member States displayed anything but solidarity. Nonetheless, the Commission dealt with the problem swiftly. How will it act in case of a repeat of the same behaviour? Do you believe that there even will be a repeat?

The first wave of the pandemic caught most of the Member States insufficiently prepared. This is partly understandable, as there has not been sufficient knowledge and previous experience of dealing with a virus of this nature.

At the same time, those critical weeks in early March revealed the limits to the current EU crisis management framework in the area of civil protection. Under such very special circumstances as with this pandemic, Member States were initially unable to offer assistance to each other, as they were all overwhelmed by their own national response, all lacking personal protective equipment.

Nevertheless, without proper reflection, too many claims were made that there was no EU solidarity. I cannot agree with this. In reality, this unfortunate event with Italy happened due to the shortage of personal protective equipment everywhere, globally even.

Consequently, as you pointed out, we at the European Commission, decided to act where we could. By 19 March, we have ensured a legal basis to set up the so-called strategic rescEU medical capacity. This enabled the Commission to assist the Member States hit hardest in a situation where literally all Member States are simultaneously overwhelmed by the same crisis.

Based on the lessons learnt from the so-called first wave of the pandemic, it was clear to us at the Commission that everyone needed to remain cautious and act preventively. In this respect, our message before the long-expected easing of restrictive measures before summer holidays in July to the Member States was clear – future wide-ranging outbreaks stand a chance of being prevented with adequate preparedness and timely action by everyone across Europe.

Unfortunately, this autumn’s extremely difficult epidemiological trends across Europe show that there has been an important delay with tightening and introduction of restrictive measures across Europe after the relaxed summer. It cannot be repeated enough, but a well-prepared and timely response by all Member States, taking on board the essence of Commission’s July recommendations remains as important as ever. The vaccine is not here yet.

This is not about pointing fingers. Our July recommendations – putting aggressive testing, thorough contact tracing and systemic isolation at their centre – are meant to support Member States to get prepared and take action as soon as needed so that governments do not enter into a position when they establish they have no choice but to re-impose lockdowns. As mayors know best, lockdowns have brutal consequences for the citizens as well as our communities and economies as such.

The pandemic quickly taught us that massive crises require a coordinated European response. Do you believe that the EU’s member states will be ready to work together as part of a Union-wide framework in case similar problems arise in the future?

Since 2001, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism provides a Union-wide framework for a coordinated response to crises. By pooling together European civil protection capacities and capabilities, it allows for a stronger and more coherent collective response to crises in Europe and beyond.

However, as I have already mentioned, our EU Civil Protection Mechanism reaches its limits when all Member States are affected by the same crisis simultaneously as it is largely based on the coordination of voluntary national contributions, therefore depending on solidarity among Member States.

Covid-19 has been an eye-opener for everyone. This is why we have put forward a new amending proposal to our civil protection legislation last June. Its aim is to strengthen the UCPM, to allow for a more comprehensive response to large-scale transboundary emergencies like the current pandemic where national capacities are overwhelmed. This proposal is accompanied by appropriate financial resources – over 3 billion euro over 7 years – stemming notably from the ambitious package ‘Next Generation EU’ agreed by EU leaders last July.

This improvement of the European civil protection system is an important piece of the wider puzzle. Just recently, and on the basis of the needs demonstrated during this pandemic, the Commission has also adopted an ambitious proposal to build the EU Health Union, with a reinforced mandate of key agencies and additional resources.

I am confident that we can have a stronger and more coordinated EU crisis management response in the future. After all, Europe is strongest when pooling together the resources and expertise arising from all levels – be that the EU, national or local level, including cooperation of our citizens.

Frontline workers and essential staff have been at the heart of the continent’s response to COVID-19. What is the Commission doing to support countries in ensuring their safety and in providing equipment where and when it is needed?

In March this year, we saw that the most pressing shortages were in the production and supply of personal protective equipment and other medical equipment.

These were – and still are – the things that are needed most by our medical staff, civil protection workers and everyone else out there saving lives on the frontline. In this respect, the European Commission is mobilising all means at its disposal to support Member States in tackling the pandemic.

Joint procurement is one of such means as it is an effective way for Member States to buy goods on the markets, together, under the coordination of the European Commission. Most importantly, the overall aim of joint procurements is to help improve the economy of scale and support equitable access to the market for all countries of the EU.

In other words: joint procurement gives the buyer much bigger negotiating power than if Member States try to buy equipment individually, or even compete among themselves.

In addition, in April the Emergency Support Instrument was activated to help EU countries address the pandemic. With this instrument, we are also able to finance the transport of medical supplies, health workers and patients across the EU. 

Another example was the creation of the already mentioned rescEU medical stockpile, operational already since spring. However, it has to be clear that the rescEU medical reserve is only a safety net of the last resort, to be used in extraordinary circumstances only. It does not replace the responsibility of each Member State to maintain reasonable stocks of medical equipment for its needs.  

Next to crisis mechanisms, the Commission has already made proposals about ways to reduce the EU's vulnerability to such disruptive events by promoting domestic production, diversifying supply chains, and building up strategic reserves when it comes to such strategic goods. 

The creation of the first rescEU stockpile in March was a major milestone for European solidarity. How has the initiative grown since then?

As you are aware, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed key vulnerabilities in how the international community responds to global emergencies. One of the most striking issues to arise at the start of this health crisis was related to the limited availability of personal protective equipment and other vital medical supplies worldwide. This concern was shared by many countries, including our Member States.

If you recall the state of play at the end of February, most Member States had limited stockpiles and struggled to provide the necessary supplies to cover their own needs or help others who asked for assistance. In response, the European Commission quickly undertook a series of steps to create the above-mentioned rescEU medical reserve.

Already by the end of April, our rescEU medical reserve became operational. It is currently hosted by 6 Member States – Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Sweden, Germany and Romania – and it is constantly replenished.

The reserve itself includes intensive care medical equipment such as personal protective equipment (high quality masks of the type FFP2 and FFP3, gloves, overalls, goggles, etc.), ventilators, laboratory supplies. To date, 670 000 items from this stockpile have been dispatched to 9 countries. In terms of ventilators, our stockpile currently has 240 at its disposal. This number is expected to increase substantially in the near future.

Local governments are at the very heart of implementing the decisions adopted by national authorities. How can towns and cities boost their responses to crises and what can they do to become more resilient?

Our cities, our communities, are indeed facing a new reality – new and more complex risks, more intense natural disasters and escalating emergencies requiring rapid response measures. We have all seen the devastating effects of climate change and environmental degradation on our urban centres.

Natural disasters are also becoming more frequent. More extreme weather events each and every year. And this is all taking place in the shadow of a global public health emergency. 

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented challenges for our economies and societies. Clearly, we are facing a multi-dimensional challenge the consequences of which are becoming apparent each day – for our infrastructure and cultural heritage, for the environment and most importantly, for our well-being and health.

Our cities are at the centre of this crisis. Protecting our cities and our communities must therefore, be at the top of our agendas. 

I do not need to tell you that cities are at the heart of the systemic and operational solutions we need. Local authorities know better than anybody the reality on the ground and can best plan for the recovery after a disaster.

Local actors are also the natural leaders of our efforts to make cities and communities stronger, better prepared and more resilient. That is why the Commission is committed to supporting regional authorities and city councils in preparing for these adverse situations. 

The pandemic shows very clearly that actors from the national, regional and local emergency response structures need to work closely together. In this light, I was glad to see that the European Committee of the Regions shares our view in favour of a reinforced EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

One of the key new elements proposed is the reinforced focus on building longer-term resilience to large-scale disasters. This includes building resilient sustainable local and regional communities. It is especially in this respect, that the Commission will also listen to the regional and local actors when defining disaster resilience goals. 

Do you believe that the EU’s municipalities should be given the resources to deal with crises on their own territories, without resorting to nation-wide mandates and lockdowns?

Firstly, I would like to recall that an effective coordination at the national level across sectors as well as coordination with regions and local authorities is key for any successful disaster risk management. To ensure an effective and coherent European response in the field of civil protection, as defined by our EU Civil Protection Mechanism, our main contact points are also at the national level.

Nevertheless, while the Commission coordinates EU civil protection policy via national authorities, it also recognises the importance of close collaboration with local and regional authorities, who are at the forefront when dealing with disasters.

One of the ways we follow this principle is via the so-called civil protection knowledge community, which is currently in the making in close co-operation with Member States.

The mission of this Network is to bring together civil protection and disaster management experts and organisations from across Europe to exchange best practices and know-how between local authorities, experts and specialists as well as engaging our citizens.

I am fully aware that “acting locally” is essential for crisis prevention and better resilience and am counting on you too to make this a meaningful community for all levels.

With regards the near future, I do hope that further full-blown lockdowns will not be the last resort governments establish they still have at their disposal. It is for this purpose we have issued our recommendations on short-term preparedness in July and they remain perhaps even more valid than ever. 

Looking beyond the current crisis, what are some of your main objectives for the remaining years of your mandate as Commissioner?

In the remaining years of my mandate, I intend to continue on further developing the EU capacities as to be able to help increasingly more people in need, swiftly and efficiently – both inside and outside the Union. Today, ever more people around the world need humanitarian assistance. What is worse, the global humanitarian outlook is worrying especially due to socio-economic consequences of the pandemic.

The frequency and the damage caused by natural disasters also continue to grow and more and more people are affected, including Europeans. As you can see, busy years lie ahead of me also in the aftermath of this pandemic, which I am confident we will overcome eventually but only if working together with a focus of leaving no one behind.

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