This year’s enlargement of the European Union (EU) - its biggest ever - is a historic moment and a strategic success. It has been heralded as a political coming of age, above all, for the former communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe. The culmination of a process that began when the first pickaxe blow fell on the Berlin Wall that dizzy November day 15 years ago. Possibly the end, for those states, of “transition” itself.
But the National Red Cross Societies are asking what impact the new Europe will have on the humanitarian agenda, and how best to respond to enlargement.
“The EU will not provide answers to many social problems — and it might even cause more,” says Srecko Zajc, secretary general of the Slovenian Red Cross. Slovenia, one of the 2004 accession states, is a gateway country conveniently situated between the Balkans and rich nations like Italy and Austria. Last year, the pan-European law enforcement agency Europol mentioned Slovenia and Romania as possible new “entry points” to Western Europe for organized drug traffickers from South America.
No easy answers
Migration is also expected to increase with enlargement, which means that many accession countries now take responsibility for the outer border of the EU — the world’s largest trading area and a source of hope for millions of potential migrants.
Governments and National Societies have been gearing up refugee and migrant programmes to deal with the expected flow of people. “We have been involved with refugees for a long time,” recalls Emil Dyekiss of the Hungarian Red Cross. “Having an agreement with the Hungarian interior ministry, the Red Cross provides various services for refugees and maintains a refugee centre. Today, we are preparing to play a greater role in protecting vulnerable migrants.”
And post-enlargement, fund-raising in Brussels is likely to get harder, not easier, even if there are larger rewards for ultimately successful bids. The EU will become poorer, on average, with household income of the newcomers some 40 per cent below the level of the existing members. And the Union’s budget will not grow in proportion to enlargement.
To gain access to EU funding sources, National Societies need to demonstrate initiative, good management and transparency. The EU offers its hand in partnership, certainly, but it also plunges all humanitarian actors into fierce competition for money. It welcomes new ideas and approaches, but the rules governing project presentation and reporting are very strict. And complex too.
Stick with what works is the advice from Pentti Kotoaro, head of the International Federation’s regional delegation in Budapest. “Don’t spread yourself too thinly,” he says, “and concentrate on key activities.”
“Invest in developing project planning skills, training staff from branches and in partnerships and cooperation with ‘older’ EU members and learn from them,” he adds. “Be innovative in income generation. Eventually, all these things will be an investment in your National Society that will provide better humanitarian services in your own countries and beyond.”
Donors once more
Overnight, on 1 May, National Societies possibly more used to being beneficiaries over the transition period will again become potential donors and implementers for humanitarian work in EU neighbours and the developing world.
Back in 1997, the three Baltic National societies together with Swedish colleagues got their first practical experience with EU funding rules as part of a pre-accession organizational development programme. It included English language classes and computer training. “The programme was very useful,” recalls Irena Bruziene from the Lithuanian Red Cross. “It enabled us to integrate European standards into our programmes. But it was only the beginning and we need to continue, especially at branches pursuing EU funding opportunities. It’s still a big challenge.”
Kristiina Kumpula, acting secretary general of the Finnish Red Cross, remembers the day in 1995 when Finland joined the EU: “At first we were quite reluctant to take advantage of EU opportunities because the whole system seemed so complicated. Subsequently, the European Commission assisted us with funding opportunities. It was not easy to translate our programmes into the ‘EU-speak’, but the problem was solved as we got more involved in common activities.”
EU enlargement also enables the Red Cross to build on its long history of working in partnerships. “The EU will bring in new partners both nationally and internationally,” says Luc Henskens, the director of the Red Cross EU office in Brussels, which mapped east-west Red Cross activities and partnerships in the run-up to accession. He cites the European Road Safety Campaign as an example — 26 European states took part last year.
“This was a real capacity building exercise which proved that the best way forward is learning by doing. It helped to strengthen relations with local authorities and other organizations in the common effort to reduce risks on the roads,” he said.
In addition, some societies have already tested other models of European cooperation. These include partnerships between the Nordic and Baltic states and a recent Austrian Red Cross initiative with its Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Slovenian colleagues.
“The National Societies are producing initiatives to come together and solve problems by themselves,” explains Lynette Lowndes, head of the International Federation’s Europe department. “Now that the EU is bringing countries together, ties will inevitably become stronger.”
EU institutions also present new platforms for advocacy. For most National Societies in the region, the hope is that by speaking out with one voice and working together they can make a positive contribution to regional humanitarian needs.
This can be done through the nine EU Red Cross networks, such as the Platform for European Red Cross Cooperation on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants (PERCO) or the European Network on HIV/AIDS (ERNA). These networks enable National Societies to lobby jointly EU governments.
Scholastyka Sniegowska of the Polish Red Cross puts reinforced advocacy among the most important benefits that EU enlargement offers National Societies. “Some 25 Red Cross societies can advocate together and put much more pressure on EU leaders,” she says. Kristiina Kumpula adds: “The new EU constitution, migration policy, European security and human rights are only a few issues where the Red Cross can voice its position and concerns.”
“The EU for us means more obligations and increased competition,” says Srecko Zajc. “Our priorities will have to be updated. We’ll need clearer criteria for assistance for existing and new vulnerable groups. Among the growing competition in the humanitarian field, the Slovenian Red Cross needs to be more concentrated. It will focus on children facing domestic violence, including those in the families of drug addicts.”
EU enlargement will not in itself solve the humanitarian problems facing the region. People trafficking, illegal migration, HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases and poverty still need to be addressed, if they are not to erode the benefits of enlargement. But enlargement is a “unique chance to address the existing humanitarian needs that affect the whole of Europe, in particular HIV/AIDS, trafficking and migration,” says Maya Sverdruip of the Danish Red Cross.
This article first appeared in the Red Cross Red Crescent magazine