Disaster Response in Europe – What Next?


Professor David Alexander of the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction argues for better preparedness against the disasters of the future in Europe.


Although I have studied disasters intensively for 41 years, the period since Covid-19 arrived in Europe has felt like seeing my entire career flash before my eyes at high speed. In barely 21 months the strengths and weaknesses of our ability to manage a crisis have been exposed as never before in the post-War period.

Although the coronavirus is obviously a medical and public health problem, it is equally a challenge for civil protection. At least half of the battle has involved the kinds of activities that are well-known to emergency planners, managers and responders: logistics, stockpiling, distribution, communication, compiling the common operating picture, multi-agency working, committing and commanding resources, and so on. Whether these activities have been carried out well or badly has depended on a variety of factors, including the degree of evolution of each country’s civil protection system; participation and compliance with official instructions on the part of the population; the quality of communication and public messaging; and the kind of example set by leaders.

Those who have protested vigorously, or violently, against measures designed to fight the spread of Covid-19 have tended to be libertarians who have not accepted the limits to freedom involved. It is all too obvious that the pandemic needs to be subdued by a common, participatory effort and that individualism is the nemesis of a good response. So, however, is authoritarianism, because it breeds unfairness and arbitrariness. The great lesson of the pandemic is that crisis control needs participatory democracy and the assertion of human rights, bounded by limits to freedom, imposed and accepted for the common good.

Covid-19 has caused an enormous amount of anxiety in Europe, and this has unfortunately been turbo-charged by the sensation that the future is looking riskier than ever. Climate change gives us, for example, mesocyclones and microcyclones that are nowadays commonly termed ‘water bombs’, and they cause tornadoes, landslides, soil erosion and violent flash floods.

In Italy last summer it appeared as if the television news was reporting a new meteorological disaster every evening. From Germany a research colleague wrote to me “our institute is quite destroyed”, following the widespread central European floods. Perhaps an even greater incubus is the occurrence of major wildfires simultaneously in all the countries of southern Europe, from Portugal to Turkey, when hot, dry conditions and strong winds prevail. Small wonder that Europeans are apprehensive, especially when they also have to deal with migration, cyber-attacks, terrorism and the threat of international military instability.

A better civil protection system for Europe

What can be done about the new order of risks and disasters? In 2006 the French former cabinet minister Michel Barnier was tasked by the European Union with producing a feasibility study for a European rapid reaction force that could tackle disasters without the need to involve military forces (which are for the most part “otherwise engaged”). He produced his recommendations but they were not accepted by Strasbourg and Brussels. They were deemed too expensive, politically unacceptable and difficult to implement in practice. Instead, the EU’s Monitoring and Information Centre became the Civil Protection Mechanism, which coordinates joint action on disasters in the European Union.

Faced with, for example, a lack of equipment to fight a large wildfire, a country may call up the Mechanism and ask whether any other Member State is willing to lend, for instance, a Canadair fire-fighting aircraft or an Erickson Air Crane. The Mechanism has served the Union well but one wonders whether it is sufficient to manage the civil contingencies of the future.

Europe faces major risks, which cannot be ignored. These include geophysical hazard impacts, such as a very large volcanic eruption, a high-magnitude earthquake or a tsunami. Heatwaves, wildfires, winter weather and very large storms can have significant international impacts. Failure of critical infrastructure, especially electricity supply, could occur over very wide areas with knock-on effects for many walks of life. Unplanned mass migration is another significant risk.

“There are increasing indications that Europe needs a civil protection system that is not only more cohesive, but an order of magnitude greater than the one that exists now. It would be better to exercise foresight and start preparing this now, rather than to find out the hard way when disaster strikes.”

Hitherto, European countries have stuck to their own arrangements for managing civil contingencies. This is logical in that there are seven different legal systems in place across Europe, along with monarchies, federal republics, devolved states, centralised ones and island states. One size definitely does not fit all. However, there are increasing indications that Europe needs a civil protection system that is not only more cohesive, but an order of magnitude greater than the one that exists now. It would be better to exercise foresight and start preparing this now, rather than to find out the hard way when disaster strikes.

A better civil protection system would unite diverse forces with greater efficiency. It would involve the public in managing their own risks rather more than they do at present. It would have clear standards, and would cooperate more. There are signs that disaster response in Europe in the future will have an increasing role, not merely in rescuing and caring for people, but also in damage limitation and in preparing the ground for post-event recovery. We could start now by seeking to ensure that Member States have their emergency response systems benchmarked.

Covid should teach us that it is time to be prudent and consider how to keep ourselves safe in the future. ‘Disaster science’ must be applied: the accumulated wisdom of more than a century of studying how to manage and respond to disasters. Much of the work has been done in European academic institutions. It now needs to be put to use in our own back yard.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.


Photograph by David Alexander: Italian civil protection volunteers conduct an emergency response exercise in Pistoia, Tuscany.

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