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EU: Commission Pledges 'Solidarity' Aid To Portugal, Mulls Common Civil Protection Force

The European Commission yesterday said Portugal will be given more than 30 million euros ($32.70 million) in aid for damage caused by the recent wildfires. The money comes from the EU's Solidarity Fund, under which 1 billion euros are made available annually to help member states and candidate countries cover the initial costs of natural disasters. The EU's regional aid commissioner, Michel Barnier, yesterday also said the bloc needs a common disaster-response force.

Brussels, 28 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a quick show of what EU Regional Aid Commissioner Michel Barnier called "financial solidarity," the bloc yesterday said Portugal will be given 31.6 million euros to help the country repair the damage caused by this year's wildfires.

Presenting the proposal, which still awaits the formal approval of EU member states and the European Parliament, Barnier said the fires constituted a "major disaster."

He said that under the rules of the Solidarity Fund, set up last year after the devastating floods in Central Europe, the EU will reimburse 40 percent of the cost of Portugal's emergency measures. "The decision we took today is to make available for eligible expenditure the sum of 31.6 million euros to Portugal," he said. "My colleague [EU Budget Commissioner Michaela] Schreyer will shortly present a proposal to the European Parliament and the [EU] Council [of ministers] to make use of the Solidarity Fund. In accordance with the rules of the Solidarity Fund, this sum will permit us to cover about 40 percent of the expenses that we [the EU] consider eligible, that is, the first instance costs."

Portugal's fires, in which 18 people died and 270,000 hectares of forest were destroyed, were the first "major disaster" the fund has addressed this year. Earlier this summer, the commission authorized aid to Italy and Spain -- for the Molise earthquake and the Mount Etna eruption in the case of the former, and the "Prestige" oil spill for the latter. All three disasters, however, qualified exceptionally as "regional" incidents.

The fund's high point was reached last year when immediately after its inception, 728 million euros ($794 million) was made available to Germany. Austria, the Czech Republic, and France to pay for initial repairs of flood damage.

In all cases, to qualify for aid, the damage caused by a natural disaster must exceed 3 billion euros or 0.6 percent of the gross national income of the country concerned. Both current and future members stand to benefit from the fund. A total of 1 billion euros in EU "solidarity aid" is available in any given year.

The fund is not designed to pay for the whole of the damage, but only for a portion of the costs related to emergency measures. For other repairs, the bloc's structural and cohesion funds, as well as agricultural subsidies, due to the country in question can be reallocated -- that is, payments can be brought forward and adjusted to meet immediate needs.

Crucially, at this point, the EU has not decided whether to include damage caused by this year's record drought in the list of disasters which qualify for solidarity aid.

Yesterday, Barnier said he thinks the EU should go further in offering a common response to natural disasters and set up a pan-European "civil protection agency."

"I am personally convinced that Europe really needs a common civil protection force of national specialized units for all types of catastrophes," he said. "These national units should be prepared to act together and under European auspices, according to the type of disaster, on the territory of the union and sometimes even outside. I think we can and should go further in matters of coordination of national efforts of civil protection."

However, Barnier's call falls short of being a formal proposal, as the European Commission has not been given the necessary competences by the EU member states. In order to start looking into setting up such an agency, the commission must first have the approval of all 15 member states.