Official Journal of the European Union

C 170/45

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Regulation (EC) No 2012/2002 establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund

COM(2013) 522 final — 2013/0248 (COD)

2014/C 170/07

Rapporteur: Mr Dimitriadis

On 5 September and 10 September 2013, respectively, the European Commission and the European Parliament decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 175 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, on the

Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Regulation (EC) No 2012/2002 establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund

COM(2013) 522 final — 2013/0248 (COD).

The Section for Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 14 November 2013.

At its 494th plenary session, held on 10 and 11 December 2013 (meeting of 10 December), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 153 votes to 3 with 4 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions


In principle, the EESC approves of the way the European Union Solidarity Fund (EUSF) (1), has functioned to date, noting that it supported its establishment from the outset (2).


The EESC sees a need for the immediate amendment of Regulation 2012/2002 on the functioning of the EU Solidarity Fund, as it has already been delayed (3), and supports the Commission's efforts even though the new proposal is rather conservative, a view shared by the European Parliament (4).


The EESC considers that the rejection by the Council of the Commission's 2005 proposal (5) represented a missed opportunity to lay new foundations for the running of the fund.


The EESC believes that all appropriate measures should be taken to cut red tape in the functioning of the EUSF and to accelerate its procedures (6).


The EESC agrees with the changes put forward in the new proposal for a regulation (7) concerning the introduction of advance payments, a clearer definition of what constitute ‘major disasters’ and ‘extraordinary regional disasters’ and the measures to be taken regarding Member States that fail to focus adequately on disaster prevention.


The EESC considers that in spite of the particularly difficult financial period the EU is experiencing, greater budget resources should be allocated to the functioning of the EUSF to provide for the unfortunate eventuality of a particularly severe major disaster.


The EESC is of the view that the EUSF's operating conditions should be entirely transparent so as not to give rise to groundless expectations or become a tool for political manoeuvring, and so as not to create disillusionment among populations experiencing severe hardship.


The EESC considers that tools such as the EUSF provide the EU with an ideal opportunity to display unity and solidarity, provided that they are used in an appropriate way and that European initiatives and support are made known to EU citizens.


In the EESC's view, the Fund's activities should include disasters that occur suddenly as a result of the greenhouse effect of climate change in general and also disasters caused by terrorist acts.


The EESC wonders why the thresholds for declaring a disaster to be ‘major’ remain so high; this obliges the EUSF to use its resources only exceptionally and only by applying derogation clauses. It considers the threshold values mentioned regarding the extent of recorded damage to be particularly high, and these should be lowered.


The subsidiarity clause, applied strictly by the Council, has a deterrent effect and complicates the Commission's efforts significantly. The EESC calls for more flexibility in applying this clause.


It is convinced that in many cases, major disasters could have been and could still be avoided by using existing European mechanisms and funds as well as existing know-how.


The EESC endorses the polluter pays principle.


It would point out that the number of major disasters in Europe has unfortunately increased significantly in recent years.


The EESC calls upon the Member States to improve their internal procedures and mechanisms in order to facilitate the Commission's work, by providing it in good time with reliable, valid and well-grounded information.


It believes that the 9-12 month period for paying aid is excessively long and fails to meet the aim of providing urgent and immediate help.


The EESC considers that rules should be drawn up on how to publicise and promote the Fund in order to familiarise the public with its work.

2.   Introduction


The EUSF was set up in 2002 following the catastrophic floods that hit central and northern Europe, with the purpose of providing Member States and candidate countries affected by major natural disasters with subsidiary support in restoring economic and social activity in the regions concerned.


The EUSF was set up under urgent procedures when the EU discovered that it had considerable sums available for coping with natural disasters throughout the world, but that it did not have appropriate tools for tackling similar disasters within its own territory or that of the candidate countries.


Since its establishment, the EUSF has worked satisfactorily in many situations, but there have been a number of instances of organisational and administrative malfunction. The Commission attempted to resolve these with its 2005 proposal for a regulation, which, although welcomed by the European Parliament, was rejected by the Council.


The Fund's annual budget is capped at EUR 1 billion, an amount that has so far proved adequate.

3.   The regulation currently in force


The main provisions of the current regulation establishing the EUSF are the following:


It was set up in order to assist Member States and candidate countries in the wake of natural disasters and to enable the EU to act swiftly and efficiently.


It covers the Member States and the countries which have opened accession negotiations.


It is a supplementary instrument providing subsidiary financial support for urgently needed action.


It states that the main aspects of major disasters to be focused on are living conditions, the natural environment and the economy.


A ‘major disaster’ is defined as one that causes severe damage expressed in financial terms or as a percentage of gross national income (GNI) (8).


It stipulates that the EUSF should function with particularly swift procedures and take rapid decisions.


The beneficiary countries always retain responsibility for implementing the assistance.


The regulation states that maximum transparency and prudent financial management are required.


It also introduces exceptions in view of the high level of the amounts set for ‘major disasters’, concerning ‘extraordinary regional disasters’ and disasters in a ‘neighbouring country’, but subject to particularly strict criteria and to a maximum of EUR 75 million. These exceptions have eventually become the rule for EUSF intervention, given the particularly high thresholds initially set for major disasters.


Under the regulation, the main priorities of the EUSF concerning major disasters are:


immediate restoration to working order of infrastructure and plant in the fields of energy, water supply and waste water management, telecommunications, transport and education;


provision of temporary accommodation and funding for rescue services;


measures for protecting cultural heritage;


the immediate cleaning up of disaster-stricken areas.


The country affected must, as quickly as possible and at the latest within ten weeks of the beginning of the disaster, submit an application for assistance to the Commission, specifying the scale of the disaster.

4.   Proposal to amend the regulation


The proposal under discussion amending Regulation 2012/2002, which governs the functioning of the EUSF, suggests the changes set out below.


It builds the functioning of the EUSF into the new Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020.


It provides a clear definition of the scope of the EUSF, limiting it to natural disasters, also including man-made disasters.


It sets a threshold of 1,5% of regional GDP at NUTS 2 level (population between 800 000 and 3 million) for ‘regional disasters’.


It allows for rapid advance payments at the request of the affected Member State, limited to 10% of the expected amount of the financial aid, and capped at EUR 30 million.


It makes provision, for the first time, for slowly unfolding disasters such as drought.


It introduces provisions encouraging more effective disaster prevention, and encourages the use of EU legislation on prevention, at the same time allowing the Commission to reject applications in the event of serious negligence on the part of Member States or if a similar disaster reoccurs.


It includes new provisions on the eligibility of VAT and the exclusion of technical assistance.


Under exceptional conditions, it permits derogation from certain provisions of the Financial Regulation.


For a disaster to be defined as major, it sets an amount of EUR 3 billion or 0,6% of gross national income.

5.   The EESC's view


The EESC has expressed its agreement on the need to amend Regulation 2012/2002 on the functioning of the EUSF, so that it:


becomes a more efficient support mechanism for the Member States, candidate countries and neighbouring countries in the event of natural disaster;


acquires competences to intervene also in disasters resulting from industrial or technological accidents.


The EESC considers that the amounts foreseen are inadequate in the event of mass disasters that could affect large parts of the EU such as, for example, nuclear accidents, pandemics, etc., and urges the Commission to pay special attention to this aspect.


It fully backs the Commission's efforts to speed up the EUSF's operating procedures, ensuring in all cases that these procedures are reliable and that their operating rules are entirely clear and straightforward.


It calls on the Member States to make use of the Fund with discretion, in order to avoid casting the EU in an unjustly poor light.


The EESC endorses the advance payments procedure, and the application of the ‘slowly unfolding damage’ clause, e.g. for drought. It also considers that reforestation should be included as part of recovery projects following natural disasters.


It believes that the Commission should be particularly strict if Member States, in spite of the existence of EU legislation and special European funding, display negligence that leads to serious disasters.


The EESC is of the view that climate change will lead to even more natural disasters in the future, and consequently calls on the Commission to include such disasters in the regulation under review.


The EESC considers that civil society always plays a special role during major disasters, and calls on the Commission to introduce into the amended regulation the possibility of funding specialised, licensed organisations of this kind that have the structures and know-how with which they can contribute their services.


It considers that the efficient functioning of mechanisms such as the EUSF enable the EU to demonstrate solidarity in practical and effective terms, and urges the Commission to take all the measures needed for the European public to be aware of the role played by the Union.


The EESC believes that EUSF financing should be included in the EU's general budget in order to reduce the delays caused by the slow and bureaucratic procedures involving the Council, Parliament and Commission. At the same time, there should also be a mechanism to supplement funding in the event of an exceptionally large disaster requiring increased assistance.


The EESC agrees with the European Parliament that the threshold of 1,5% of regional GDP at NUTS2 level is too high, excluding many serious disasters from the Fund, leading to public disillusionment. It therefore proposes reducing it to 1% so that it primarily covers countries with low population figures.

Brussels, 10 December 2013

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  Council Regulation (EC) No 2012/2002 of 11 November 2002, OJ L 311, 14.11.2002.

(2)  EESC opinion on the Proposal for a Council Regulation establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund, OJ C 61, 14.3.2003, p. 187-188.

(3)  EESC opinion on the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund, OJ C 28, 3.2.2006, p. 69.

(4)  European Parliament report on the European Union Solidarity Fund, implementation and application, C2012/2075, A7-0398/2012/20.12.2012.

(5)  Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund, COM(2005) 108 final of 6.4.2005.

(6)  EESC Opinion on the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the future of the European Union Solidarity Fund, OJ C 181, 21.6.2012, p. 52.

(7)  Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Regulation (EC) No 2012/2002 establishing the European Union Solidarity Fund, COM(2013) 522 final, 25.7.2013.

(8)  The amount at which a disaster is considered to be ‘major’ is set at EUR 3 billion at 2002 prices, or more than 0,6% of the GNI of the country concerned.