Why the EU's Ebola response doesn't add up

Medicine and hygiene supplies are delivered and distributed to households and health centers in Sierra Leone by UNICEF and the European Commission's humanitarian aid department. Does the EU lack an operation strategy in its response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa? Photo by: ECHO / CC BY-ND

At the Oct. 20 European Union foreign ministers’ meeting and the Oct. 23 EU summit in Brussels, the topic of a more comprehensive European response to the Ebola crisis was high on the agenda after a Spanish nurse treating two infected missionaries became the first person to contract the virus on European soil.

Beyond that, Europe’s own image of a generous and effective international humanitarian actor had been set back after U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would send more than 3,000 troops to West Africa to build field hospitals and deploy some 70 health officials on a rotation basis from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Europe’s own image was further challenged with news from Cuba, which dispatched a brigade of 165 health workers and equipment to Sierra Leone at a time when Europe was still discussing ways to act more effectively on the ground.

This image could suggest Europe had done little to combat the epidemic since Médecins Sans Frontières issued warnings in March, the World Health Organization declared on Aug. 8 the outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern,” and a Sept. 18 U.N. Security Council resolution called the epidemic a threat to international peace and security. In March, the European Commission stepped up its financial aid to the affected countries allocating 18 million euros ($23 million) to address the most urgent humanitarian needs, in addition to the already committed 180 million euros in humanitarian and development aid to the affected countries.

The emergency funding was channeled through MSF, WHO and the Red Cross to directly target Ebola efforts. The EU has deployed humanitarian experts and specialists, and provided equipment including air transport for goods and personnel through its humanitarian air service. As of mid-October, individual European countries had pledged some 200 million euros to fight the crisis.

The EU’s response is mobilized through a collaboration of the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers and the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, assisted by the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. The European institutional setup and response mechanism might have worked for a limited outbreak of the Ebola epidemic, but the deadly virus is out of control and is becoming a very serious threat to security, political stability and economic life in the region. This requires a different level of response — including coordinated European action to provide military assets and logistics. In mid-October, WHO-registered Ebola cases were at 9,000 with an estimated infection of 5,000 to 10,000 per week by December.

The EU’s response capacity to such a crisis is seriously hampered by a fragmented institutional setup, which prevents comprehensive and swift action. In an attempt to promote a comprehensive approach to complex crisis response, outgoing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton established in 2010 a crisis response system — consisting of a crisis platform, a situation room and a crisis management board — activated through the Crisis Response and Operational Coordination Department under the European External Action Service. Its mandate is to ensure the mobilization of actors and instruments across the EU system, but it has no financial capacity to channel decisions into action. At the same time, ECHO’s Emergency Response Coordination Center has a mandate to facilitate a coordinated assistance from European member states during emergencies around the clock. The ERCC is the operational hub of ECHO’s Civil Protection Mechanism, showing a positive track record since its establishment in 2001. Efforts by Ashton in 2013 to merge the EU Situation Room — part of the EEAS — and the ERCC failed.

The EU Crisis Platform, created as part of the EEAS Crisis Response System, can bring together the EU Military Committee, relevant European Commission services dealing with humanitarian, transition and development assistance and various EEAS crisis response and management structures, including the Crisis Management and Planning Directorate. The Platform has so far not convened to deal with the Ebola crisis. The EU’s operational response and coordination is in the hands of ECHO, which closely coordinates with the member states in the Health Security Committee — part of SANCO — but does not have all the means to coordinate a more effective response.

Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations have been launching one appeal after the other to bring the urgency to the awareness of the public and asking European leaders to show their political will to act more effectively.

As of October, the EEAS and the Commission, waiting for the new EU leadership to come in, had not managed so far to promote a comprehensive crisis response across the EU. EU officials and member state diplomats were now discussing a plan prepared by the EEAS lining out several options for military missions to counter the Ebola crisis though it is open whether EU member states will support a proposal that gives the EEAS a role in coordinating military airlifts and other support operations.

In the meantime, France and the United Kingdom ordered their military, in addition to the humanitarian aid already provided, to assist their former colonies Guinea and Sierra Leone, respectively, while some other EU member states set in motion their processes to assist with (military) logistics and material on the ground.

An operational strategy making best use of all EU and EU member states assets, however, did not exist. The European Think Tank Group squarely pointed at these coherence gaps within Europe to address global problems in a recent report, highlighting that Europe holds all the building blocks for effective external action, but that its parts are not adding up. Coordination between these blocks results in the exchange of information but is not used to swiftly promote shared analysis and the formulation of joint strategies and responses. The Ebola crisis painfully highlights where this can lead to.

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About the authors

  • Volker hauck profile

    Volker Hauck

    Volker Hauck is head of the conflict, security and resilience program at the European Centre for Development Policy Management. He joined the organization in 1998 as senior program officer for capacity development and led ECDPM's knowledge management and communications from 2007 to 2012.
  • Sophie desmidt profile

    Sophie Desmidt

    Sophie Desmidt is a conflict, security and resilience research assistant with the European Centre for Development Policy Management. Before joining the ECDPM, she worked as an EU advocacy assistant for Human Rights Watch in Brussels.

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