Interview with Natalie Pauwels, Head of Unit, European Commission Service for Foreign Policy Instruments, Brussels, and Marian de Bruijn, Programme Coordinator, United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), Turin
After a forced three-year break due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 8th annual meeting of the National Focal Points (NFPs) of the European Union Chemical, Biological, Radiological Nuclear Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence (EU CBRN CoE) Initiative took place in Brussels mid May. Our magazine was invited by the EU Commission Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), which organised the event together with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) and the support of the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), to participate as an observer and to report on this event (see our conference report pp. 21-22).
The European: Ms Pauwels, Ms de Bruijn, please let us start our conversation by looking back to the beginning of the EU CBRN CoE Initiative which was launched by the EU in 2010. Ms Pauwels, can you tell our readers how it developed from its modest beginnings involving 13 countries into what it is today: a truly global initiative with 64 partner countries and still growing? What do you think explains its success and how was that reflected in this year’s National Focal Points (NFPs) meeting?
Natalie Pauwels: The EU CBRN CoE Initiative was ambitious from the start in terms of both its geographic and thematic focus. However, “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear risk mitigation” is not the most easily accessible terminology. It takes some time to explain what it is all about, which makes attracting political attention to this area of activity more difficult. The Covid-19 pandemic, the explosions in the ports of Beirut and Aqaba, and now the unjustified and unprovoked Russian aggression against Ukraine have put a spotlight on the very real risks related to CBRN materials and the need to work with partner countries to enhance their capacities to mitigate and eventually respond to CBRN events.
The European: The 8th NFPs conference offered enormous opportunities for long and solid future cooperation. What is your view from the United Nation’s side, Ms de Bruijn?
Marian de Bruijn: Indeed, it is important to have our eyes on the future and adapt to the rapidly evolving threats and challenges related to CBRN materials. All participating countries realise that this threat is cross-border and can only be addressed through effective international cooperation. The role of the UN and in particular of UNICRI is to ensure that the initiative remains agile and responsive to the needs of the partner countries and the international community, in complex and sensitive issues related to CBRN risk mitigation.
The European: Do you both think that the success of the initiative is due to its methodology and its demand driven structure to support CBRN preparedness?
Marian de Bruijn: The EU CBRN CoE is a decentralised network, in which countries cooperate. This starts within the countries by understanding, through the creation of national CBRN teams, the specific needs and priorities related to CBRN risk mitigation. The NFPs share their priorities in a regional context, with the support of the UNICRI Regional Coordinators, and together with experts they develop regional project proposals to address their needs. This has not been a quick process, but the methodology has proven to be very effective. Today we are a trusted community of 64 partner countries, the EU and the United Nations, and we are still growing.
Natalie Pauwels: The methodology underpinning the EU CBRN CoE Initiative is indeed unique and successfully contributing to mitigating CBRN threats. This was also the finding of the European Court of Auditors in its special report on the initiative in 2018. Many if not most CBRN risks require inter-agency coordination as well as cross-border cooperation, and the initiative supports both. It encourages partner countries to define common challenges that need to be addressed in a given region, where the EU can then step in to support with concrete actions.
The European: Has the EU any interest in monitoring single projects or actions or does it leave this to the regions or NFPs?
Natalie Pauwels: The initiative is designed to be bottom-up, in the sense that the NFPs in each region together identify and define the projects that they want to see prioritised for funding by the EU. This ensures that projects correspond to identified needs and are “owned” by the partners, who have an interest in engaging the right people and institutions in the project implementation. That said, we are closely involved in the process together with UNICRI. Members of my team attend regional round table meetings and participate in discussions to ensure that what is proposed is actually workable from our perspective as a donor. And we follow projects from conception to conclusion, monitoring their implementation and impact, and drawing lessons that can feed into the design of similar projects in other regions of the initiative.
The European: Ms de Bruijn, how can you ensure, that regions follow common guidelines and what is the role of UNICRI in accompanying them?
Marian de Bruijn: All regions can rely on the same methodology and guidelines for needs assessment and the development of National and Regional Action Plans (NAPs/RAPs). However, the country is the owner of their needs assessment and NAP and therefore, how they are shaped and whether they are public or not is based on their strategic decision. The EU has supported the countries and regions by funding over 90 projects that support them in addressing their needs, from laboratory safety, to border security and CBRN waste management. However, the EU cannot address the needs alone and therefore UNICRI is working together with the Union to open the network to other international stakeholders that can provide additional support to the partner countries.
The European: Ms Pauwels, how does the EU influence interregional cooperation and what is the value of the EU CBRN CoE Initiative within the Union’s Strategic Compass?
Natalie Pauwels: We are putting increasing emphasis on drawing out lessons from over 10 years’ experience of the initiative, which is implemented in eight regional groupings. While every partner country and region has its own particularities and its own set of CBRN risks, there are also many commonalities. We are at a point where a successful action in one region is being replicated in another region, albeit adapted to its needs and particularities. But the initiative is also policy driven. It supports the external dimension of the EU’s own Action Plan to enhance preparedness against CBRN security risks, which calls for enhanced cooperation with strategic partners as well as specialised international organisations. Although the initiative is development-focused, it is supporting efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, highlighted in the Strategic Compass as a key security concern for the EU.
The European: At the 8th NFPs meeting, a Head of Regional Secretariat said to me “never before have we had such an intense exchange of views among the regions”. Ms de Bruijn, what is your assessment as a co-organiser?
Marian de Bruijn: As mentioned by Natalie, the initiative is now mature and the exchange between regions is vital to ensure that best practices and lessons learned are considered. Indeed, projects that have been implemented successfully in one region can be replicated in another. During the EU CBRN CoE Academy that was organised at UNICRI headquarters in Turin on 26-30 September 2022, NFPs from all regions jointly addressed key questions such as the ideal composition and mandate of the national team, the implementation of the NAP and the sustainability of the EU CBRN CoE. These events highlighted once again that, together with the EU and the UN, the partner countries are the owners of the initiative.
The European: My congratulations for your convincing leadership in the conference and thank you for our conversation.