by Nannette Cazaubon, Paris
Having reported several times on the “Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence” (CBRN CoE) initiative in our magazine, we are continuing to follow this success story, launched by the European Union (EU) in 2010. Aimed at fostering national and regional cooperation in the face of CBRN risks and threats across the planet, the initiative – counting 64 partner countries organised around eight Regional Secretariats – has developed into the Union’s largest external security programme today with 100 projects funded.
From 14 to 15 June 2023, together with Editor-in-Chief Hartmut Bühl, I participated in the CBRN CoE initiative’s annual meeting in Brussels, as we have done since 2019. We were pleased to see familiar faces, to talk with participants from new partner countries, and to discover the latest format of this annual high-level event.
(Brussels, June 2023) News from the eight regions, thematic sessions with experts, alongside a walk through an exposition; a “world café” session and an award ceremony followed by a closing dinner in Victor Horta’s architectural masterpiece, the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR), one of my favourite places in Brussels.
The conference programme announces quite an exciting new shape for this 9th International National Focal Points (NFPs) meeting organised by the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), with the support of the United Nations International Crime and Justice Institute (UNICRI).
I am impressed by this year’s venue, a former theatre that has kept its ancient decor and provides a beautiful background for the event. Silvia Bottone, Programme Manager at FPI and Marian de Bruijn, Head of UNICRI’s CBRN programme, both responsible for the organisation and “spirit” of the two-day meeting, tell us that over 150 participants are gathered, including 51 NFPs out of the 64 CBRN CoE partner countries, as well as representatives from EU institutions and Member States, the United States and Canada, and various United Nation’s offices and programmes.
The opening takes place in the beautiful auditorium and starts with Peter M. Wagner’s welcome speech at his first CoE meeting as FPI’s Director. He recalls that CBRN incidents have “a low probability but a high impact” and that “being ready requires extremely well organised and specialised response capacities”.
Joanneke Balfoort, Director of Security and Defence Policy at the European External Action Service (EEAS), explains how the EEAS is supporting the CBRN CoE initiative by using both the service’s global network of EU delegations and its interactions with partners.
Bernard Magenhann, Deputy Director-General at the EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) is represented by Margarida Goulart, Head of the Euratom Coordination Unit, who highlights the JRC’s engagement to foster nuclear safety and security and reaffirms its continuous technical support of the CBRN CoE initiative.
Finally, Franceso Marelli, Head of UNICRI’s CBRN Risk Mitigation and Security Governance Unit, highlights the continuous support for Ukraine from all the EU CBRN Centres of Excellence before concluding: “our solid cooperation built over the past decade makes the world safer, even in these most challenging of times.”
Updates from the regions
The rest of the morning is dedicated to panel sessions with the Heads of the eight Regional Secretariats, who present updates on their region’s many activities (projects, meetings, workshops, field exercises…). Now that more than half of the partner countries have accomplished the drafting of their CBRN National Action Plan, they engage more and more in regional activities, with two regions – the Middle East (MIE) and South East and Eastern Europe (SEEE) – having already adopted a Regional Action Plan. This year, we are also observing a clear shift to closer inter-regional cooperation.
Thematic sessions and networking
A variety of highly interesting thematic sessions in relation to CBRN is offered in the afternoon, ranging, amongst others, from Canada’s Weapons Threat Reduction Programme activities and the German Biosecurity Programme to experiences from the creation of the CBRN Steering Board in Estonia and an update on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540.
After the dense afternoon programme, we join the relaxing networking reception in the evening, allowing us to enjoy a Belgian beer or a glass of Italian wine while walking through the exposition illustrating flagship projects in the different regions. Silvia Bottone passed by and reminds us to vote for our favorite project, the winner being awarded at the end of the event. We do our duty and go find the voting box.
When I enter the “theatre” the next morning, the rows of chairs have been replaced by circular tables. The participants, some bringing their cup of morning coffee, are taking place in the “world café”. Not familiar with the concept, Hartmut and I like it very much, as it encourages an intense exchange of views: participants discuss three questions (linked to climate change, National Action Plans and CBRN response) under the lead of a table host, and then rotate from one table to another. The lively discussions we observe clearly prove that the participants appreciate this form of communication.
EU priorities complementary to CBRN
In the afternoon it is the European Commission’s turn to present EU programmes and priorities that are complementary to CBRN. Charlotte Renckens (HERA) introduces the new European Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), while Tristan Simonart (DG ECHO) highlights possible synergies between the CoE initiative and DG ECHO’s work in the field of prevention, preparedness and response to natural and human-made disasters. Then, Maureen Wood (JCR) reports on scientific support for chemical safety and security.
The traditional award ceremony for the best success story takes place before dinner in BOZAR’s majestic entrance hall, which has been converted into an elegant pop-up restaurant, with a DJ placed in front of the large stairs.
The project I voted for, “The EU CBRN CoE support to Ukraine” makes third place and is much applauded. The second place goes to the Uzbek project “Integrating Mobile Labs into the Public Health System”, and the winning success story is the Lao-Philippines project “Country-to-country training in Southeast Asia strengthens implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)”.
It is evident that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pushed discussions on CBRN hazards into the public and political discourse. People have become aware that CBRN incidents have the potential to become cross border emergencies with overwhelming cascading effects. Factors such as climate change are worsening this broader risk picture. Having been held in this worrying context, the 2023 National Focal Points meeting made clear that the 64 partner countries, conscious of the role the EU CBRN CoE initiative has to play in preparing for and responding to these growing threats, are ready to put in the energy necessary to push regional and inter-regional cooperation ahead in CBRN risk mitigation –
to make the world safer.