Check against delivery
Mr Chairman, distinguished members.
Thank you for the kind invitation to address your Committee on the very first working day of my mandate. I did not hesitate for one moment to accept. Because I see close cooperation and constant dialogue with your Committee as fundamental to our shared objectives: of getting help from the citizens of Europe to people affected by conflict and disasters around the world. Quickly, effectively and in a principled way. While working for more effective prevention and preparedness in the face of climate change. And standing up for International Humanitarian Law – which is the very foundation of humanitarian aid in situations of conflict.
Mr Chairman, it is now two months since my hearing, led by this Committee. I am determined to follow up and deliver on the commitments I made during the hearing. The many informal contacts and conversations I have had over the past months have confirmed to me the relevance of our exchange in the hearing.
What I propose to do today is to share my assessment of the immediate challenges we face – both as regards the main horizontal policy priorities, and as regards some of the main crises we are faced with.
The main crises we will need to engage on
Let me begin with what is inevitably at the top of my ‘in-tray’ [as incoming Commissioner for Crisis Management]: making sure we have a fast, effective and principled response to the biggest crises that we as EU have to confront.
Syria of course comes very high on that list. The war in Syria has entered its ninth year. The fighting in Northwest Syria is particularly intense, with large displacement of people. In Northeast Syria, the situation remains unstable. Even if there has been a slight reduction in the level of violence in other parts of Syria, humanitarian needs remain massive. 11.7 million people inside Syria are still in need of assistance. And there are 5.6 million Syrian refugees in the region. So we need to maintain our efforts. Both on funding for the response. And also, crucially, in terms of advocacy towards those directly involved in the fighting in the Northwest. Respect for International Humanitarian Law [in the face of horrendous atrocities has been, and] has to remain, at the very top of the list for us as we continue to deal with the Syrian crisis. I will of course work very closely with the new HRVP and my fellow Commissioners on this.
Directly linked to the situation in Syria, I will be devoting sustained attention to the situation of refugees in Turkey in particular. I want to pay tribute here to the extraordinary work done by the previous Commission, and by my predecessor, Christos Stylianides, in establishing the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Through our flagship programmes, the Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) and Conditional Cash Transfer for Education (CCTE), we have been able to assist over 1.7 million vulnerable refugees. We helped half a million children to attend school regularly. We have now contracted EUR 2.24 billion on humanitarian projects through the Facility for Refugees in Turkey. The key priority for me now will be to work on a sustainable transition for these programmes. Our humanitarian protection and health projects will end by June 2020. Our flagship programmes on education and cash assistance will end in October 2020 and by March 2021, respectively. I will work closely with Commissioner colleagues to step up transitioning to longer-term development assistance in the areas of education, health, socio-economic support and municipal infrastructure in host communities under the Facility. This will be one of the most immediate objectives for this new Commission in addressing the continuing Syrian refugee crisis.
Another priority for me will be the situation in Yemen, the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The conflict continues, at a horrendous cost for civilian population. Even with the ongoing talks, the prospects for real improvement in the humanitarian situation are not good.
I will also continue to follow the situation in Iraq. We supported a country-wide response during the early stages of the conflict. Last year, we also restored the basic living conditions for returnees to go home. We will concentrate now on the remaining 2 million IDPs stranded in camps.
In our immediate neighbourhood, in Ukraine, the impact on civilians of the conflict in the East is no less a humanitarian situation than it was six years ago – although it has now become a forgotten crisis. Not for us, though - it will remain one of our priorities.
Let me turn to the second major block of crises that are at the very top of my in-tray. The ‘crisis belt’ that stretches from parts of West Africa through the Sahel across Central Africa and into the Horn of Africa. Some of these crises are not new. They stem from a combination of recurrent drought and food insecurity (made significantly worse by climate change), development failures and conflict. What is new is the extent to which some of these crises are now interlinked. And they should be of very immediate concern to the EU. Not only from a humanitarian perspective. In the Sahel, things are getting worse, and fast. The very rapid deterioration in a country like Burkina Faso is dramatic: we have seen there an explosion in the number of internally displaced persons since the beginning of this year. Or take the situation in the Lake Chad basin: 10 years of conflict; 11 million people in need of assistance; 3 million people forcibly displaced; 3.5 million people suffering from food insecurity. Likewise, the situation in Northeast Nigeria is of particular concern to me. Not least because there are over 1 million people living in areas that are completely inaccessible for humanitarian aid, and who may be at risk of severe food insecurity.
This illustrates the need for a genuinely integrated approach that addresses underlying development and security issues even as we deal with the humanitarian fall-out. We need an effective nexus that brings in development actors whenever possible. I will therefore work with the HRVP and with Commissioner Urpilainen to enhance our overall efforts in the Sahel.
Even within this gloomy picture, there are small windows of opportunity that we need to seize. The situation in Sudan is one of these. For years, the humanitarian community has been doing the heavy lifting in Sudan. Little if any development work was possible. There is now an opportunity to work on an effective humanitarian-development nexus – with development actors and indeed the local authorities stepping up to take over basic service provision for the millions of IDPs and others vulnerable people in Sudan. But we cannot take this for granted. I am convinced that the EU can and has to be part of the solution.
I have started with the Middle East and Africa because they are the closest geographically to the EU. But I want to be very clear: the EU has a responsibility to remain a global donor. And a donor which pays particular attention also to ‘forgotten’ crises.
It is by maintaining our global presence that we were able, very early on, to build up humanitarian assistance to people in Venezuela – at a time when the humanitarian needs there were barely recognized. There are now 11 million people in Venezuela in need of humanitarian assistance. Keeping our humanitarian assistance principled in Venezuela, in line with the EU Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, has been a crucial precondition for ensuring and maintaining access for our humanitarian partners. Again, I want to pay tribute to the work done under the previous Commission on developing our programmes in Venezuela and neighbouring countries, which have now reached EUR 89 million since the beginning of 2018.
Similarly, in Myanmar, we have remained engaged even as the crisis has faded from the headlines. And as a global donor, so we should – with one million Rohingyas still living in congested camps in Cox’s Bazaar.
I could not leave Afghanistan out - Afghanistan has virtually disappeared from the headlines. And yet, since November 2019, Afghans are the biggest group in terms of asylum applications to Europe. Whatever the scenario – a ceasefire between the US and the Taliban and withdrawal of international forces; the status quo; or renewed all-out war - humanitarian needs will continue to be significant.
Finally, I want to stress the importance for the EU of being able to respond rapidly and effectively to sudden-onset disasters wherever and whenever they happen. This is at the heart of the role of European Emergency Response Coordinator that President von der Leyen set out as a key mission for the Crisis Management portfolio in the new Commission. As you know, we have an extraordinary tool in the form of the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) – I was being quite sincere when I said at the end of my hearing that the ERCC is the single point of contact, the ‘single phone number’ for European disaster response! I hope all of you will visit the ERCC. I want to strengthen this excellent tool and to make it “a single operational hub” for the EU’s response to multi-dimensional disasters.
Key policy priorities
Let me now turn to some of the policy tools and themes that will underpin not only our response to crises but also our work to prevent and prepare for them.
First and foremost, I intend to devote particular attention to integrating climate change into how we plan for and organize our response to, and preparedness for, crises. This is not a theoretical issue for humanitarian aid or disaster management. With the creation of rescEU, we are reacting in a concrete way to the increased risk of forest fires in Europe and globally. But we can do more. Climate analytics should become an integral part of response planning. The same goes for the impact of climate change in those parts of the world where we provide humanitarian assistance. Climate change will displace millions of people as they lose their livelihoods. I want to take this into account in our humanitarian funding. As well as in the work we do on resilience with our development colleagues. In addition, investing massively in early warning systems and forecast-based financing allows better preparedness and can help prevent hazards turning into disasters. Again, I want to build on the early warning capacities we already have in the ERCC.
I will also make sure that the policy area I am responsible for contributes to delivering on the Green Deal, which will be one of the first major deliverables of this Commission. Whether it is through the delivery of humanitarian aid or response to disasters here in Europe, we are the ones who see first-hand the impacts of climate change. We hear the stories from the field – from the people who are seeing the scale and extent of changing weather patterns; the increasing frequency and damage caused by flooding, forest fires, droughts and storms. We have access to the data, to monitoring and early warning tools. With the Crisis Management portfolio, we are ideally placed to feed into the evidence base for further policy development as part of the Green Deal, but also to help communicate the importance of the Green Deal with concrete examples of the consequences if we fail to bring about the transformation needed – or not fast enough. I am ready to play this part and I strongly believe that it can make an impact.
Secondly, I want to step up the EU’s role on what is both one of the most important parts of my mission letter – and one of the most challenging. Speaking up for International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Ensuring that parties to a conflict commit to applying IHL. Helping disseminate IHL among fighters on the ground. Making sure that there is a sense of accountability – and fighting against impunity. Speaking up when gross violations of IHL occur. Defending the space in which principled humanitarian action can take place. This is crucial in places as diverse as Syria and Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen. I want to build on the good work that has already been done – for example, by EU Training Missions in Africa; or with the funding we are providing to humanitarian organizations specializing in IHL; as well as in implementing the EU Guidelines on IHL. I will step up our advocacy in the field; in Brussels; and in multilateral fora – as well as in the bilateral contacts we have with key actors. To this end, I will explore how to raise the EU’s voice and profile internationally, to make it a lead advocate on key humanitarian policy files, and will develop activities in this context. I wish to salute the Call to Action on IHL launched by France and Germany at this year’s UN General Assembly. And I will personally be paying close attention to the impact of sanctions and counter-terrorism measures on humanitarian aid. How we ensure that humanitarian aid can be provided without impediment to people in need in crises where sanctions or counter-terrorism measures apply is nothing less than a matter of credibility for the EU. At the upcoming 33rd Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, we need to see a strong EU voice - and that voice needs to be credible. We need to practice what we preach.
Linked to putting IHL at the heart of what we do, I want to keep a sustained focus on how we deal with issues of gender, age and disability in humanitarian aid. This means a comprehensive effort to address sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises. As well as addressing the specific needs of vulnerable groups. I will push for ensuring that we make inclusive humanitarian action a reality on the ground.
A third major thematic area I will focus on is the nexus between humanitarian and development assistance – and where this is relevant, with peacebuilding. I will of course build on the work done by the previous Commission. But I feel we need to accelerate progress – and move away from conceptual discussions in Brussels. We need to go to the field and zoom in on the sectors and areas in each crisis setting where development is not happening – and identify the reasons why. And where development can step in – on key issues like health, water, education and livelihoods – we need to make it happen. I look forward to working very closely on this with Commissioner Urpilainen.
Linked to the nexus and the need for an integrated approach that respects the humanitarian principles, I want to build on and further develop the coordination we have with military actors. Who can bring important assets to disaster response when there is no civilian alternative. And with whom it is essential to have effective coordination and dialogue whenever military missions and humanitarians are deployed in the same crisis. In full respect of each other’s mandates.
Education in emergencies has been a priority under my predecessors and I wish particularly to highlight the role played by Christos Stylianides in putting this firmly on the humanitarian agenda. It will be one of my priorities as well. We know what the stakes are for girls and boys in humanitarian emergencies. I will insist on sufficient funding to maintain our effort in this area. But clearly, longer term instruments as well as short-term actions must be applied according to context.
I want to stress one fundamental commitment that will cut across all the work we do – both in responding to crises and at the policy level. And that is a commitment to multilateralism. Multilateralism is in the genes of the European Union. But in few areas is the need for a strong and effective United Nations as immediately obvious as in crisis response and humanitarian aid. I have already had a first conversation with UN Under-Sercretary-General Mark Lowcock. And partnership with the UN – both OCHA and the agencies delivering a big part of our assistance on the ground – will be a constant in everything we do. Whether in working towards an even more efficient humanitarian response – as we are doing through the “Grand Bargain”. Or in responding effectively to violations of IHL and stepping up efforts for the protection of civilians.
I am keen for this multilateral engagement to be underpinned by strong cooperation and dialogue with other key donors. First and foremost of course the United States. In the context of a challenging overall relationship, we have much in common in the way we tackle humanitarian crises. I want us to build on this. As well as on the cooperation we have with other key players in the multilateral system. And I want us to reach out to potential emerging donors – whether in the Gulf or in Asia. Because humanitarian values are universal. And we cannot afford to be complacent about the resources we need to address growing humanitarian needs.
Which takes me to a last point. Later this week, the. We are hosting one of the five launch events here in Brussels of the UN the ‘Global Humanitarian Overview’. (Mr Chairman, you have kindly agreed to join and speak at this event, for which we are very grateful.) I have no doubt that in 2020 we will not be seeing any substantial decrease in the overall needs. Which is why your support also in the budgetary discussions within the EU is so crucial – whether in the MFF; for the annual budgetary negotiations; or for mobilization of the Emergency Aid Reserve. And it is greatly appreciated. We know we have a strong ally in you; and we know that in return you will expect to see strong and effective delivery of EU assistance. As well as a strong European voice on humanitarian affairs. I will do my very best to meet these expectations.
Thank you, Mr Chairman. I look forward to your questions and comments.