The EU is helping Haiti

Sometimes crises are just that ? crises, not an excuse to grandstand or promote bureaucratic growth. On that basis, the EU is handling the Haiti crisis well.

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

To the people of Haiti, the earthquake of 12 January was a cataclysmic event that has transformed their society, possibly for ever. To President Obama, it has become a much-needed test to underline his role as Crisis-Manager-In-Chief. To the EU, however, the event has become yet another cause for introspection and depression.

The crisis has come at a time of bureaucratic transition. The EU’s new foreign policy “czar”, Catherine Ashton, is yet to be confirmed in her post and the European Parliament railroaded the appointment of EU Commissioner-Designate Rumiana Jeleva, whose portfolio includes humanitarian relief, just days ago. As a result, the EU’s response seems to bear all the hallmarks of the pre-Lisbon polity – slow, technocratic and overshadowed by the US.

The pictures did not help. As Hilary Clinton jetted into Port-Au-Prince on board aid-carrying US military planes, the EU’s top diplomat spent the weekend at her home in London, took three days to convene a ministerial meeting and has yet to visit the Haitian capital. The Spanish Europe minister, Diego López Garrido, said that the EU would provide “the most coordinated response possible”, only to see French, Germany, British and Spanish aid teams rush off to Haiti in a seemingly uncoordinated manner.

But while there is every reason to be depressed about Haiti’s predicament, the EU’s action should engender no such emotions. The EU was never going to be the first-responder. Though European countries, particularly France, shoulder some of the blame for Haiti’s horrific past, the EU has in recent years only played a limited role in the country’s affairs, while the US, Canada and Brazil have taken up responsibilities commensurate with their regional power. The idea that the EU ought to compete with them for access and visibility on the Caribbean island is shameful.

Second, though the EU does many things badly, it does humanitarian relief quite well. Within hours of the disaster the EU provided €3 million for immediate relief activities. But there is probably room for improvement. Once the immediate crisis is over, the EU’s new Commissioner-Designate for Humanitarian Aid, Kristalina Georgieva, should examine whether the EU needs to reform its rapid deployment mechanisms, perhaps by setting up the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps, a provision for which exists in The Lisbon Treaty.

Looking at the useful work of the US Air Force in Haiti, she may also want to order a study on how the EU’s military set-up — for example its 1.500 person battlegroups or a pooling of strategic lift assets– can in future aid humanitarian relief. In our latest report, Richard Gowan and I argued for the EU to look anew at its military capabilities and how they can better be made to support civilian, and now also humanitarian, work.

Third, Haiti will need help for decades, perhaps even half a century – and the EU is well-placed to give it. It has already made with €107 million available for early reconstruction while some €200 million will be available for longer-term rehabilitation. Individually, EU governments have promised €92 million. That makes overall-European assistance to Haiti, year-on-year, the same as what the bloc gives to the whole of Latin America. And this may even rise if assessments show more money is needed.

A script for how the EU could have handled Haiti’s crisis, written by the former High Representative Javier Solana, would have run differently, The media-savvy diplomat would likely have rushed to Port-au-Prince, or at least neighbouring Dominican Republic, be photographed helping to off-load aid parcels and jetted back to Europe with a plan for a new ESDP mission. There are plenty of officials in the EU bureaucracy who are grumbling about his successor’s low-visibility handling of the crisis. Isn’t “civil protection” one of the key priorities of European security policy, as laid out by EU leaders as far back as a decade ago at the Feira Council?

But while there was a time and place for a kind of scatter-gun strategy, which saw the EU dot the world with small and mid-sized missions, today the EU needs to be more strategic about its interventions. This is a case for relying on the EU’s well-run humanitarian and development operation, and supporting the UN, financially and in time with the necessary staff. It should not be interpreted as an opportunity to deploy yet another police-and-justice mission.

If Haiti represents a test of international compassion, it is one the EU is passing. But if the crisis is made to be a test not of how to help a devastated people, but of whether the EU can rival the US, or use it as an excuse to build a range of new institutions, it is one that EU leaders should shirk. Sometimes crises are just that – crises, not an excuse to grandstand or promote bureaucratic growth.

A version of this article was published in El Pais on 22 January 2010.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow