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EU: Union Pledges Aid For European Flood Damage

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is pledging resources to help repair flood devastation in Central and Eastern Europe. An agreement was reached yesterday at a meeting in Berlin between European Commission President Romano Prodi and leaders from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Prague, 19 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is taking a high profile in efforts now getting under way to repair the vast damage caused by flooding in Central and Eastern Europe.

Attending a summit of regional leaders in Berlin yesterday, European Commission President Romano Prodi made clear that disaster relief will be made available not only to present EU members but also to Eastern candidate countries. The Czech Republic and Slovakia suffered severely in the flood crisis, and both can expect to be on the EU's list for financial help.

As Prodi put it in Berlin yesterday, "This is a time when we have to make clear that Europe is a Europe of solidarity."

Prodi gave few details about the aid package. More information came from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who hosted the mini-summit. Schroeder also took time to stress that the misery of the flood victims knows no borders. "We will continue working from tomorrow to make unified Europe a place of solidarity among the peoples of the member countries and the countries becoming members," Schroeder said.

Specifically, he said the EU has agreed on a series of measures to ease the situation. Among other things, state rebuilding contracts will be signed quickly outside of standard contracting procedures, farm-subsidy payments will be speeded up, feed will be sold at below-market prices to flood-stricken farms, and farmers will be allowed to plant land taken out of production under earlier directives.

These broad, "noncash" measures mostly affect the countries inside the EU, which are already tied to union policies.

For candidate countries, there is, instead, cash. Numbers have not yet been fixed, but EU officials and analysts speak of a sum for the Czech Republic of up to 60 million euros ($59 million). That's a useful amount but a comparative drop in the bucket, given the enormity of the flood devastation. Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said preliminary estimates put the damage in the Czech Republic at between 2 billion and 3 billion euros.

Candidates should also be able to benefit from an emergency EU loan program on favorable terms.

An EU-affairs analyst at Rotterdam University, Professor Renus van Schendelen, noted that the candidate countries will be receiving "new money" in aid from Brussels, meaning finances not already foreseen in the EU budget.

This is not the case with the established members, which he said will not be getting extra funding. Instead, they have Brussels' agreement to reassign to flood relief scores of millions of euros in EU aid originally intended for such things as regional development. Because the money is already in the EU's hands, approval of the 15 member states is not needed. But there is a downside, van Schendelen said. "Of course, there are losers in the story. The real losers are, for example, cities like Cologne and Hamburg, and others, far away from the flooding, which may have been given a promise that they will receive regional fund money, and now that amount of money will go to the [flood-hit] east of Germany [instead]," van Schendelen said.

It's estimated that total flood damage across the region may total 20 billion euros.

Another analyst, Karel Lannoo, the acting director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, noted that the EU is extending its range of activities by involvement in the flood cleanup. "You have to consider that in the past, the EU has hardly done anything [in terms of natural-disaster relief]. It was largely left to the member states. If it was affecting one single member state, it was left to that member state to act, or the different member states. But now I find it very good that Prodi is interrupting his holiday to meet Schroeder [and the others]," Lannoo said.

Lannoo noted that the helping hand the European Commission has extended to the candidate countries should also pay off in terms of raising the popularity of the EU in the East. As accession approaches, prospectively in 2004, enthusiasm for the EU is not particularly high in a number of applicant countries, and this gesture could generate warmer feelings.

It's one thing to promise help, of course, but it's another to deliver it. The EU's vast foreign-aid program is habitually beset by problems of late delivery or partial fulfillment. "[The EU's] crisis management, or project management, back here in Brussels has not had such a very good reputation in the past," Lannoo said.

In this case, however, major problems are unlikely. The sums of aid to the candidate countries are easily managed, and the assistance for present members falls largely within established procedures.

At the Berlin summit yesterday, it was also agreed that the European Union will establish a natural-disaster fund in response to events like the floods. Schroeder said the EU hopes to create a 500 million-euro fund to provide faster aid to regions hit by such disasters. The proposal is subject to the approval of all 15 EU members.

Analyst van Schendelen noted that the idea of such a fund is not new. Years ago, the EU already had one for emergency situations, totaling about 500 million euros, but the European Parliament canceled the funding about a decade ago, as it remained unused for so long.

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