Sumario: January 12, 2005: José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. Intervention in Plenary session of European Parliament on aftermath of earthquake and Tsunami. Session of the European Parliament (Strasbourg)
My trip to Jakarta last week brought home to me the full scale of the tragedy caused by the Asian earthquake and tsunami. And it confirmed for me that the international community - including the Commission - was right to respond quickly with very substantial pledges of aid and other support.
What Commissioner Michel saw when he went on the ground in Aceh was shocking. The tidal wave literally erased civilisation along 500 kilometres of coastline, destroying all that was in its path as it crashed inland, reaching in places a depth of five kilometres. And the tragedy is that the majority of the population lives on that very coastal belt which was so devastated.
Similarly harrowing stories have been recounted from Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and the Maldives. And the damage on other less accessible countries such as Somalia is only now emerging.
This awesome act of nature has left in its wake over 150,000 people dead with some five more million people without home and shelter, traumatised and now facing the task of reuniting what is left of their devastated families and of rebuilding their homes and businesses.
Explaining and approving the EC pledge
The scale of the disaster and the shocking images plastered on our televisions and newspapers sparked massive sympathy among our European citizens who rightly demanded a very quick and large response.
In other emergency situations, the Commission has had more time to discuss and prepare its response beforehand with Parliament and the Council, our budgetary authorities. In this case, we did not. Within nine days of the wave striking the coastlines of Asia and Africa, the heads of government from the affected countries and the major donors were gathering in Jakarta to agree how we would repair the damage and what funds we would make available.
To prepare the ground within the limited time we had, I discussed with President Borrell and Prime Minister Juncker the Commission's proposal to pledge €450 million before leaving for Jakarta. They were both very positive and supportive of the approach I proposed. But without having had the chance for detailed discussion in Parliament plenary and Council, I indicated to the Jakarta pledging conference that the Commission's €450 million pledge was conditional on approval with the budgetary authorities.
This is my first priority today - to listen to your views, answer your questions and agree on how we can best tackle the two main tasks we now face - how to rapidly turn our "conditional" pledge into concrete money on the budget and then to turn those funds into effective reconstruction programmes on the ground that help the people rebuild their shattered lives.
Detailing the Commission's proposal
While this is still early days, I'd like to explain in more detail what I have in mind on how best to use the Commission pledge, if you and Council agree to the funding.
On the humanitarian side, the Commission has responded fast and very efficiently. We were first on the ground and first in delivering on our promises. The first support package was announced on the day that the tsunami struck and we have now committed through ECHO 23 million euro. However, as Kofi Annan has underlined, a billion US dollars will be needed immediately. In answer to this, I propose as part of the pledge that €100 million further is allocated from the emergency reserve to assist in this effort. I understand your committees have been discussing this proposal favourably.
In this regard, I fully support the Parliament's approach of underlining the coordination role of the UN.
On the reconstruction side, I propose that €350 million is made available. I had envisioned that part of this would come from fresh funds and part from a reprogramming of funds already planned for the affected countries. Although reconstruction task will take up several years, the financing this reconstruction effort should be provided in this and next year.
I understand the reprogramming part of my proposal has caused some concern in Parliament. So why am I proposing this? The main reason is speed - the funds for projects planned for 2005 are already on the table and can be used for the urgent immediate reconstruction work. Waiting for fresh funds to come on stream will take up to six months - we need to move with reconstruction funds now. All donors are responding in the same way - including the World Bank - to leverage funds for tsunami as fast as possible.
I also do not believe this approach will have any negative side effects. Will this lead to a cancellation of already planned projects? No - if governments decide with us that a tsunami related project takes immediate priority, the originally planned project can be taken up in 2006 or 2007, under the new financial perspective.
Will this lead to Asia robbing other regions of their funds? No. Any projects that would be reprioritised and delayed in this way will be within the Asia envelope which if necessary will need to be readapted and I count on your support in this regard. Quoting from a draft resolution I have seen from Parliament, I can assure you that "the poor across the world will not pay the price of this disaster."
Let me give you some specific examples of how this reprogramming approach can be of immediate value. In Indonesia, the Commission has a 35 million euro programme which aims to improve access and quality of health care at the community level. If government agrees, this can be extended quickly to help rebuild and strengthen health care facilities damaged by the tsunami. Alternatively, in Sri Lanka, we are planning to cooperate with the World Bank on a housing programme to help resettlement of internally displaced persons. Similarly, this could be broadened quickly to help rehouse families displaced by the tsunami.
Whatever the level of new funding, I stress that the Commission needs to look at how planned projects can be reprogrammed in this way to ensure that we can respond on reconstruction within the critical first months.
But the Commission's pledge was provisional and could be revisited once final costings are in. We already know needs are huge and there could be room even for a higher contribution of fresh funds if both Parliament and Council would agree to it.
Affected countries lead on reconstruction
I fully support the line agreed in Jakarta that the affected countries must lead the needs assessments and create their own national tsunami reconstruction plans that will identify the priority projects and the means to implement them. This is a matter of basic principle - responsibilise the countries and ensure they lead to coordinate all the generous commitments made. We should not flood the countries with tens of different facilities and instruments cooked up beforehand with donors or international financial institutions.
Let us look at another principle all donors and countries agreed in Jakarta - we must deliver our support rapidly. I emphasised in Jakarta that the Commission would seek to explore all means at its disposal to turn our pledge into effective programmes as fast as possible. The General Affairs Council further lent its support to this commitment. This means accelerating our procedures as much as possible, within the confines of the financial regulation, so unnecessarily heavy bureaucracy does not slow us down.
I saw how rapidly and efficiently the countries have already moved in helping their citizens - it is impressive. As such, we should provide the bulk of our aid as budget support, giving the countries the tools to rebuild their destroyed infrastructure and to restore the livelihoods of their shattered communities.
This approach is the only way that the affected countries can coordinate the aid efficiently. It would be an impossible task for them if the hundreds of donors give their aid separately and each demand that their own procedures be followed.
Of course, we will ensure that budget support will be properly overseen so we have the comfort of sound financial management of our funds.
However, the Commission will need to also address punctual and particular projects that will be better delivered by direct implementation rather than passing through the national budgets. For example, there may be some specific work that is started in the humanitarian phase that can be usefully continued under the initial reconstruction phase. Alternatively, there may be specific conditions that prevent easy access for the national budget to certain geographic regions or indeed to the poorest communities who must benefit from this tsunami reconstruction. Such cases would also warrant the continued channelling of a part of our funds through NGOs.
Reporting to Parliament
In every successful emergency programme organised by the Commission, the Parliament has played a pivotal role. In this regard, I think of Afghanistan or the Balkans. And this role is not simply to agree on funding but to follow the programme and to lend political weight when needed to ensure the programme's political goals remain on track.
I am confident that you will play a similar role in facilitating the Commission's programme of reconstruction after the tsunami. To this end, I will undertake that the Commission will report to you regularly on progress both in plenary and committees.
My colleague Mrs Benita Ferrero-Waldner will go down to the region in the coming weeks to further assess the needs and to put more flesh on this proposal. I would propose that she reports to the Parliament on her return.
I recognise the importance placed by parliament on additional measures beyond aid that the EU can provide to further help the countries affected by the tsunami.
You can rest assured that all Commission departments are mobilised to investigate in their particular areas what can be done in this regard. This includes support to G8 debt moratorium initiatives, investigation of possible trade initiatives ease trade access to the Union for the countries' concerned and work with the governments in seeking to facilitate the implementation of the European Investment Bank's "Indian Ocean Tsunami Facility".
The member states and Commission agreed in the General Affairs Council to offer direct support to the countries in their efforts to develop early warning systems so they will be better able to respond to future natural disasters.
The Commission is also considering proposals for a new EU approach to reinforce capacity for disaster prevention. I welcome proposals for the development of a rapid response humanitarian capacity for the European Union which would permit it to enhance its assistance in future disasters and humanitarian crises.
I noted with interest the ideas being floated on the possibility of supplying fishing vessels from decommissioned EU fleets to the fishing communities in the affected countries. The idea is very appealing - we have all seen pictures of boats wrecked by the tsunami and our own fishing industry is about to destroy boats from its own fleet in line with fishery limits. My services are currently exploring whether vessels are available, what state of repair they are in and, if they meet the needs of the fishing communities in the tsunami affected areas, how they could be made available to fishermen in the tsunami affected areas. I hope that this initiative will work and will report back to you with the results of our work.
New Opportunities for peace process
Last but not least we must recognise the political dimension of the tsunami crisis on the political problems in Aceh and in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The international community must impress on the players involved that the tsunami crisis must not lead to a drift back towards conflict but that instead it is recognised as an opportunity to reinvigorate the search for peaceful and long term solutions to these problems. In doing that, we will of course pay due attention to the sensitivities of the two countries concerned.
We have set ourselves high targets both in Jakarta and in the UN Geneva meeting. Your debates so far show your commitment to see action. Similarly the General Affairs Council showed the commitment of the European Union.
The outpouring of support from our private citizens for this crisis further show their support for the full commitment of all the EU's institutions to deliver on the promises we have made.
The questions are already being posed - can we deliver or will our response to the tsunami go the way of past less successful responses to natural disasters. We must now give the answers. I count on your support in helping the Commission deliver. And I give you my promise to work closely with you in this massive task ahead of us.