A report by Hartmut Bühl, Paris
Eager to know how the European Union Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) functions, I was very glad to be invited by Antoine Lemasson, who heads up the ERCC, for a walk through the centre. Visiting, amongst others, the operations and the crisis room, I learned operational details and how countries participating in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) coordinate their work with the help of the centre.
Hartmut Bühl: Mr Lemasson, thank you for receiving me for an information walk through the ERCC, which you are leading as head of Unit within the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO). This DG is notably responsible for the UCPM which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.
Antoine Lemasson: The ERCC was inaugurated in May 2013, indeed exactly 10 years ago. The project and idea of a civil protection mechanism in the EU, however, started much earlier, with a Council decision in 2001. The UCPM and the ERCC have both grown exponentially since then. To give you some figures, up to now, we have received a total of over 800 requests for assistance from countries all around the world, including over 140 requests from Ukraine. Mr Bühl, let’s start our walk through the ERCC.
Mr lemasson invites me to start our walk through the ERCC.
At the entrance, he shows me an information table.
Hartmut Bühl: This table shows the whole infrastructure of the ERCC and this leads me to my first observation: everything seems centred around the operations centre, but decisions aren’t taken there, are they?
Antoine Lemasson: Yes, indeed, we speak of our Operations Room which is at the centre of our work and the UCPM’s decision making process when it comes to engaging in a disaster. We are supported, as you can see, by colleagues around in offices, briefing rooms and, when needed, in our auditorium.
I will show you later our crisis room, where high-level meetings are conducted and strategic decisions are taken. But let’s step first into the operations room.
In the operations room, I see most recent analytical maps and products on the latest developments both globally and inside Europe. On four screens there are live pictures and news from crisis regions.
Hartmut Bühl: On the screens, we can see migrants in a fishing boat with problems docking in Italy, demonstrations in Israel, a land shift in South America. I see also urban fighting in Soudan, climate demonstrations in Berlin, bombings on towns in Ukraine, fire in Spain. What hell! Could you explain how the ERCC is monitoring all this information and what are your means to react?
Antoine Lemasson: We need this information, because the situation officers’ main work here is to prepare decisions, by evaluating situations and making proposals for the coordination of delivery of assistance to disaster-stricken countries, such as relief items, expertise (environment, cultural heritage…), civil protection teams and specialised equipment. The pictures from satellites are most useful.
The European: Countries other than EU Member States participate on a voluntary basis in the assistance sent in response to emergencies. Can you tell us more about this “spirit of solidarity” which seems to me to be the soul of the UCPM?
Antoine Lemasson: We are 36 UCPM countries, 27 EU Member States (MS) plus 9 Participating States (PS): Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Türkiye and very recently Ukraine. All members have generously taken up the immense challenges we have faced with the increasing numbers of forest fires, Covid-19 and Russia’s war on Ukraine.
The European: Do you have figures for last year?
Antoine Lemasson: In 2022, the UCPM responded to 132 requests for assistance, compared to an average of 20 prior to the pandemic. The treatment has been made possible by the engagement of people working here and the assistance from UCPM member states.
The European: The EU helps worldwide when a disaster strikes. What are the conditions for EU support? Is the Union’s engagement unconditional or are there assumptions?
Antoine Lemasson: Our mechanism can be activated by any country, or international organisation. We cannot guarantee a response to all requests for assistance – this depends on offers received from UCPM member states. There is no geographical limit to our work, however.
The European: Can you give some examples for countries of extreme distances to Europe?
Antoine Lemasson: The UCPM has responded to the forest fires in Chile, to the consequences of a devastating cyclone in Vanuatu, and not to forget that in 2023 it provided a significant response to the people of Türkiye and Syria affected by the massive earthquakes of February.
The European: To make it easy for our readers to understand the procedures: when the EU is called for help, how is this help organised, from the incoming call to the ERCC to the decision to support and then implementation?
Antoine Lemasson: Once a country or organisation requests support for a disaster and transmits us an overview of their needs, we assess the request, sometimes revert to the requester for clarification, and we then communicate the request with the EU Member States and the participating states through a secured information system. They are then able to make offers of in-kind assistance or expertise on our internal system and see what other offers have already been placed. We then liaise with the requesting state or organisation and organise logistics. The ERCC can also mobilise in-kind assistance from the rescEU stockpiles of medical and energy equipment for example.
The European: And direct EU support on the ground?
Antoine Lemasson: At DG ECHO, we benefit from a large network of field offices with experienced humanitarian staff on the ground, who help us monitor upcoming and ongoing situations. If needed, the ERCC also can support the affected country by sending EU Civil Protection Teams composed of experts and ERCC liaison officers whose role is to facilitate the coordination of the UCPM response on the ground.
Mr Lemasson takes me to the secured crisis room where the decisions are made.
Antoine Lemasson: Here in our crisis room, you see the screens liaising with all the information sources of the EU but also countries concerned and specialists around the world. Have a look around!
The European: Very professional with the highest technological standards. On the way up here, I saw small working rooms for every UCPM MS/PS. Are they permanently present in Brussels or do they join the ERCC only in special situations?
Antoine Lemasson: They join in situation of disasters, before being deployed and upon their return, and we, for sure, also have the most modern equipped situation rooms for delegations from the countries receiving help for handling their crisis or disaster, helping us to better understand situations and to be most efficient.
The European: I want to come back to the UCPM capacities. You mentioned rescEU, the extra layer of citizen protection in Europe, integrated into the UCPM.
Antoine Lemasson: In 2019 the EU reinforced the UCPM by creating rescEU, enabling the Commission to act as a last-resort support stakeholder and mobilise assistance when Member States are unable to help. The Covid-19 pandemic has proved just how crucial such a stockpiling system is. We now have 10 operational reserves, focused on medical and energy equipment. Another four CBRN stockpiles are being developed as we speak. rescEU, along with the European Civil Protection Pool (ECPP), gives the EU some flexibility and margin of manoeuvre in its response capacity. An example of this is our forest fire fighting capacity – we are doubling our fleet of air response capacity for this forest fire season, to be able to fight against simultaneous fires, as we have seen it often since 2017.
The European: What about the cost for UCPM states or donors?
Antoine Lemasson: In terms of financial support, the Commission supports donating MS/PS with at least 75% of transport and/or operational costs.
The European: A crisis here is not a crisis there. The ERCC closely monitors natural and technological disasters, as well as crisis and conflict situations. What about political crises?
Antoine Lemasson: We are not involved in all crises. Purely political crises, such as demonstrations or riots, are not for us. Although the UCPM can be and has been activated to respond to migration crises, we are not monitoring day-to-day migration flows like FRONTEX.
The European: The Copernicus Emergency Management Service supports you with timely and precise geospatial information as I learned. Who is the owner?
Antoine Lemasson: The ERCC is an authorised user of the service, which is managed by the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and our colleagues from the Directorate General Defence Industry and Space (DG DEFIS). Together with them, we are able to get satellite imagery via the EU Satellite system Copernicus and produce analytical maps of areas of interest.
The European: What about DG ECHO’s engagement in environmental disasters, eg maritime pollution?
Antoine Lemasson: The support offered to countries under the UCPM covers the environment and property and it can be activated against marine pollution occurring inside or outside the Union. The UCPM facilitates the coordination and transportation of assistance to countries affected by maritime incidents, and we are supported in these cases by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)
The European: Your Centre is directed to be quick in decision and in implementing help. To be able to act in such a way there must be stocks of material and reserves on human beings? Antoine Lemasson: EU MS and UCPM PS may commit national resources for emergency response to the ECPP. This pool allows for better planning and coordination of response activities at European and national levels which means a faster and reliable EU response to disasters. These are resources that are pre-committed, enabling better visibility and coordination; the final decision on mobilisation remains with the MS. The rescEU reserve, on the other hand, consists of resources established by the EU and hosted in various locations across the EU. The ERCC can take the decision to mobilise items or capacities from the rescEU reserve to an affected country. The ECPP and
rescEU, together, provide the EU with a more comprehensive and efficient response capacity, on top of the assistance provided directly by the UCPM members.
The European: This is the hard bone of the UCPM. But when the Commission does not directly procure, what is the financial system? Does the EU bear the cost for stockpiling in nations or for other issues?
Antoine Lemasson: The Commission does indeed not directly procure but cooperates with willing Member States by signing direct grants. But there is a system:
For direct donations from UCPM members to an emergency, the UCPM will cover 75% of the transport costs.
Under the ECPP, in return for their commitment of assets, UCPM members benefit from financial support from the European Commission to develop and transport the capacities where they are needed: in this case up to 85% of transport and operational costs.
For rescEU donations, the UCPM funds 100% of the transport and operational costs linked to the mobilisation, linked to conditions: the Member State hosting a rescEU capacity on behalf of the Commission is responsible for the procurement of the capacity, its storage and its maintenance.
The European: And we are ending here in the Commissioner’s plenary room, thank you, Mr Lemasson, for this insightful information walk. I wish you and your team all the best in your mission to save people.