Ministers 'agree to agree' on ramping up EU's Ebola response

UNICEF and ECHO teams load emergency supplies for Ebola-hit Sierra Leone onto a Boeing 747. Critics argue that the response to the crisis in West Africa is not coming fast enough, due to the fragmentation in the EU’s decision-making process. Photo by: European Commission

More money, more coordination, more staff on the ground, more equipment.

For the European Union’s foreign ministers, it’s clear what is needed to combat the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Nevertheless, progress was still painstakingly slow as they met in Luxembourg Oct. 20, and the gathering wrapped up with a solemn vow to step up efforts — but there were few concrete steps.

The top diplomats of the 28 EU member states — a group known as the Council — exchanged views amid a flurry of proposals on new ways for the bloc to tackle the Ebola crisis. Germany suggested setting up a pool of medical and logistical experts, so-called white helmets who could jump into action whenever a medical crisis arose, while the United Kingdom wanted to put the issue atop the agenda of the following week’s EU Summit.

The Council agreed that Ebola presents “a threat to international peace and security” and covered key topics pertaining to the crisis. However, few decisions were made and the conclusions of the meeting were instead dominated by calls for closer cooperation and coordination. In this vein, the ministers agreed that a European Ebola czar should be designated by the end of the week. European Parliament Member Christos Stylianides was appointed to the position Oct. 23.  

“We weren’t prepared for an epidemic with such a dynamic,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted. “Whole structures and states are collapsing.”

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s outgoing foreign and security affairs supremo, said that the virus “represent[ed] an unprecedented crisis which requires an unprecedented response.”

But commentators said that the response was not coming fast enough due to the fragmentation in the EU’s decision-making process.

“The EU Crisis Platform, that was set up under the European External Action Service, has so far not convened to deal with the Ebola crisis,” Volker Hauck and Sophie Desmidt from the European Centre for Development Policy Management wrote in a critical op-ed for Devex. “The EU’s operational response and coordination is in the hands of ECHO, which closely coordinates with the member states but does not have all the means to coordinate a more effective response.”

Upping the funding ante

In financial terms, the response took the form of more than half a billion euros (about $640,000) in pledges, both from the European Commission (that provided 180 million euros) and from individual member states.

The U.K. upped the ante by calling on the EU to double its financial support to 1 billion euros, a proposal that was echoed by other countries such as the Netherlands. U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond felt a sense of urgency to enact the fund because “we’ve got very little time to get on top of it and prevent the uncontrollable spread of the disease.”

During their meeting, the foreign ministers recognized the need to get trained medical staff to the affected region as a top priority. Luxembourg’s top diplomat, Jean Asselborn, called on the EU to follow the example of socialist Cuba, “a country of 11 million inhabitants that has sent already 130 doctors to the region, 300 more doctors and nurses to follow.”

But efforts to attract more volunteer aid workers are hampered by a major bottleneck: the dearth of capacity to evacuate staff who could be affected by the virus. Presently, if necessary, only three people per week can be airlifted out of the region,” outgoing European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Kristalina Georgieva told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday.

At the time, the Commission had contracts with three specialized companies, allowing for the evacuations of two “dry” cases (a person infected but without symptoms of Ebola) and one “wet” case (an infected person with Ebola symptoms). The Commission hoped to increase this capacity by pooling the evacuation capacities of member states. Germany, Italy and the U.K. have already offered their resources, with France and Luxembourg ready to join the initiative. The foreign ministers agreed that evacuation operations were eligible for up to 100 percent financing from the EU budget.

Screening controls

With fears of Ebola spreading to Europe, part of the discussions focused on the need for tougher screenings of arrivals from West Africa.

The U.K. has already started entry screenings passengers arriving from West Africa at its international airports, an example followed by France and Belgium. The Belgian national Ebola coordinator, in charge since mid-October, saw no need for such controls, but was forced to cave in after strong pressure. Notably the trade unions of airport luggage handlers and flight staff have been demanding stricter measures.

Other EU member states did not follow the U.K.’s lead.

“In the Netherlands we don’t have direct flights coming from the affected countries,” Dutch Health Minister Edith Schippers said at a high-level meeting on the epidemic in Brussels in mid-October. “Moreover, I haven’t seen any medical need to do this, since Ebola has an incubation period that can reach up to 21 days, much longer than the duration of a flight from Africa to Europe. Entry screenings could even give people a false sense of security.”

Ministers like Schippers and several medical experts find that a strict exit screening of people leaving Ebola-affected areas are much more effective. There is a consensus, however, on the need to provide continuous, objective public information on the virus to prevent possible stigmatization.

“[The Ebola virus] represents an unprecedented crisis which requires an unprecedented response.”

— Catherine Ashton, the EU's outgoing foreign and security affairs chief

Not feeling much aid

Several members of the European Parliament were critical of the EU’s aid efforts during a plenary session in Strasbourg in October.

“Big NGOs on the ground such as MSF, Oxfam and UNICEF tell me that they are not feeling much aid on the ground,” said U.K. MEP Linda McAvan, who chairs the European Parliament’s influential Committee on Development. “Who is going to staff them, will they be able to get evacuated?”

Dutch liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy commented that “we don’t have enough money, we don’t have the management structure, and the Foreign Ministers’ Council doesn’t seem to have done much to rectify this,” while MEP Charles Goerens from Luxembourg lamented: “How many more deaths will we have in West Africa before member states decide to speed up action?”

French center-right MEP Françoise Grossetête complained that “we were too naïve and too proud” to react fast enough, but Georgieva defended the Commission against accusations of being too late to respond.

“We were the first to jump into action when the epidemic broke out in March,” she told the European Parliament. “For months we tried to get attention from the international community, but we were only heard when it got on the six o’clock news.”

The MEP’s criticisms were nonetheless echoed by nongovernmental organizations in Brussels, which are calling for a bolder response.

“Today’s push for greater European coordination on Ebola is good news, but what’s required is concrete action — more doctors, equipment and troops on the ground are desperately needed,” said Natalia Alonso, Oxfam deputy director of advocacy and campaigns and head of the NGO’s EU office. “The narrow window of opportunity to prevent Ebola spiraling out of control in West Africa — and potentially beyond — is closing.”

Whether the EU heads of state will finally agree to take much bolder action to fight the disease when they meet later this week in Brussels remains to be seen.

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About the author

  • Diederik Kramers

    Diederik Kramers is a freelance correspondent in Brussels covering EU and NATO affairs. A former spokesperson and communications officer for UNICEF and UNHCR, he previously worked as foreign desk and Eastern Europe editor for the Dutch press agency ANP and as editor-in-chief of the Dutch quarterly Ukraine Magazine.