Interview with HE Nasser Kamel, Secretary General of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), Barcelona/Cairo and Maciej Popowski, Director-General of DG ECHO, European Commission, Brussels
The European: Mr Kamel and Mr Popowski, over the past years, the European Union (EU) and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) have developed close cooperation on civil protection. New joint projects and programmes have recently been launched. What drives both the EU and the UfM to undertake such an ambitious political and technical initiative between nations with different political traditions, diverging geopolitical ambitions, and societies with different cultures?
Nasser Kamel: Civil protection has long been recognised as one of the main objectives of the UfM since its inception in 2008. In 2020, UfM Foreign Ministers reaffirmed it as one of the six main priorities of our organisation, calling for an action plan to strengthen its prevention campaigns, emergency response and crisis management.
The European: The Mediterranean region is indeed heating up more than any other region of the world.
Kamel: Yes, the Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (MedECC)- Report established that the Mediterranean region is a climate change hot spot. With the incidence of natural and man-made calamities on the increase, both in quantity and simultaneity of occurrence, we need to understand that climate change does not stop at, or recognise, geographical borders, political traditions or cultural differences. The need to cooperate at a regional level is no longer an option, as no country can rely solely on its own national civil protection capacities.
Maciej Popowski: As you said, Ambassador, disasters know no borders. Let me add that due to their geographical proximity, countries on both shores of the Mediterranean face a similar reality of disaster risk management, further exacerbated by the impact of climate change. This is evident in the numerous activations of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) over the summer and early autumn, in response to wildfires in Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Tunisia, and floods in Italy, Slovenia and Libya. Not to mention other devastating natural disasters in the region such as the earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye, and, more recently, Morocco. The increasing number of disasters, their complexity and interconnectedness require a strengthened partnership on civil protection between EU Member States and countries in the Southern Neighbourhood.
The European: How is the EU contributing concretely to this objective?
Popowski: The Union committed itself to this objective with the revival of a senior level dialogue on civil protection with the UfM in 2019 and with the adoption of a dedicated UCPM Strategy for the Southern Neighbourhood in 2021. I would also like to recall the recent Med9 Declaration of the heads of state and government of the nine EU southern states supporting stronger cooperation on civil protection and disaster risk management in the Mediterranean, including with non-EU countries. This is also the aspiration of many of our partners on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, who have called on numerous occasions for a reinforcement of common operational language and procedures in times of crisis.
The European: Did the EU-UfM conference at the level of Directors-General (DGs) for civil protection last October in Valencia lend fresh momentum to this cooperation?
Popowski: There is indeed willingness and readiness on both sides to build on this renewed momentum for action to better prevent, prepare for, and respond to disasters in the Mediterranean. The meeting of UfM Directors-Generals for civil protection in Spain, the first in four years, including a joined session with the UCPM DGs, was a good opportunity for us to take this work forward, ultimately leading to the creation of a new solidarity instrument, the Mediterranean Framework on Civil Protection (MFCP).
The European: Can you please elaborate on this?
Popowski: A voluntary non-binding MFCP will gather capacity-building blocks from DG ECHO regional cooperation initiatives in the Mediterranean, as well as from the instruments launched by the UfM at the Directors-General meeting in Valencia. Once established it will complement and further develop the UCPM and the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), enabling actors on both shores of the Mediterranean to pool their emergency prevention and response resources more effectively.
The European: Mr. Kamel, from your perspective, what are the challenges in creating such a framework for closer cooperation?
Kamel: In a way, the sooner that countries come to the realisation that only practical regional collaboration can safeguard against the overwhelming or catastrophic consequences of climate behaviour, the better. The challenges, in my view, remain in creating the right framework of regional coordination, based on agreed terms of operation. The idea for the MFCP is geared towards this goal.
The European: And this framework will foster solidarity?
Kamel: For me, civil protection is in itself an act of solidarity between countries and their civilian populations. For Mediterranean countries and other stakeholders to come together and explore ways to cooperate in sharing experiences, resources and lessons learnt on prevention, preparedness and response, primarily relative to climate-related or induced hazards and while doing so, developing a common language of engagement with a view to save lives and assist communities in distress, is in my view the essence of the cooperation we seek between the UfM member states, international organisations and private partners.
The European: Excellency, the UfM Action Plan 2030 that was presented in Valencia is comprehensive, ambitious, and very demanding. Can you tell us what are the essential features of this project?
Kamel: The UfM Action Plan 2030 is the outcome of a series of working groups that have met over the past months. These were preceded by the setting up of a UfM Regional Dialogue Platform on Civil Protection in December 2022, which provided a much-needed space for national civil protection authorities, international organisations and other interested partners to dialogue, engage with each other, share views and ambitions in this regard. This created the possibility for countries from the EU and others hailing from the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean to address common concerns arising from the sudden impact of climate related hazards affecting both sides of the Mediterranean, as well as the increasing pressures that countries were experiencing on their limited national civil protection resources.
The European: Mr Popowski, let me question you on another project that was launched on 6 June 2023 in Rome, the PPRD (Prevention, Preparedness and Response to natural and man-made Disasters-Mediterranean) Mediterranean programme with 10 southern Partner Countries. It proposes to take advantage of advanced technologies such as earth observation, supported by artificial intelligence, and use them for civil protection. Is PPRD Med a complement to the UCPM and the ERCC?
Popowski: By fostering the development of a culture of prevention and preparedness in the EU Southern Neighbourhood countries, the PPRD Med regional programme provides operational capacity building, thus opening a Mediterranean window for the work of the UCPM. Another aim of the programme is to enhance institutional and operational cooperation between Southern partners and the UCPM within the framework of the political partnership with the UfM. From an operational viewpoint, we see great potential in the tools developed by PPRD Med and in the added value they can bring to the ERCC. We will explore how to promote further synergies between the ERCC and our partners in the Southern Neighbourhood and reinforce their capacity to use the ERCC when disasters occur.
The European: This brings me to the question of political stability. Mr Popowski, can such a cooperation bring about more political stability in Europe and its surroundings, one of the leading objectives of the EU neighbourhood policy?
Popowski: Regional and bilateral cooperation on civil protection can help overcome political tensions and contribute to building trust among countries in the Southern Neighbourhood. Its technical nature and the potential cross-border impact of disasters represent a strong incentive for states to work together. A practical example is the cooperation among Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, all members of the UfM, in the Middle East sub-region. It has resulted in the successful organisation of a UCPM full-scale exercise in Jericho in March 2023 on an earthquake scenario hitting the Jordan Valley in the context of the “Professional Dialogue Exercise – Jordan Israel Palestine” (PDEX – JIP) agreed among the three entities. We hope that this collaboration will resume in the future with the launch of new projects.
The European: Gentlemen, you have both spoken of the need to create a culture of preparedness and proactive risk reduction in the face of natural and man-made disasters in the EU Southern Neighbourhood countries and the Mediterranean basin. Among the projects the UfM is proposing is the observatory on volunteerism. The idea is to get civil society engaged in civil protection to support professional first responders. May I ask you, Ambassador Kamel, as Secretary General of the UfM, to outline the underlying idea here?
Kamel: The resilience of societies is based on several pillars, and one of the most important and strategic is the commitment of citizens to building shields for their own security. To convert and channel this commitment, volunteerism is a powerful link between institutions and the population, relayed by associations or intermediary bodies, which reinforce the spirit of solidarity. Voluntary engagement in civil protection is one of the ways of exercising solidarity in disaster situations, as close as possible to needs. It also provides added value, in the form of knowledge of the territories. In general, civil protection volunteerism is carried out at the local level, as a first level of response. It is this proximity that increases the efficiency of the action. It also has potential to create social cohesion, as different social groups, men and women, younger and older people work together towards one goal.
The European: It is in this sense that the German THW (Bundesanstalt Technisches Hilfswerk) has developed and implemented programmes with Tunisia and Jordan.
Kamel: You are right. The creation of an observatory of volunteerism desired by the member countries of the UfM will draw on the experience of the THW programme by giving it a Euro-Mediterranean character, aiming to promote this model, to create regional synergies, and measuring the results obtained. The observatory will also be a communication tool among populations to promote this form of commitment to society.
The European: Mr Popowski, may I ask you as Director-General of DG ECHO to conclude this interview by taking a position on a slogan making the rounds during the Valencia conference: “We are striving for a win-win situation between Europe and the South.”
Popowski: Indeed, this is what we want to accomplish! As I said at the meeting in Valencia, we are striving to create a strong Mediterranean community of civil protection practitioners. DG ECHO will continue to support the partnership between European and Southern Neighbourhood countries together with the UfM and reflect on how to leverage our strengths and further develop our cooperation in a complementary and mutually beneficiary manner.
The European: Gentlemen, I thank you for this conversation and wish you every success in your future endeavours. This magazine will follow your progress and report on your achievements.