Red Cross defines role in enlarged Europe

Publicado: 26 junio 2003 0:00 CET

Rita Plotnikova in Bratislava

Behind the triumphant parade of ten European countries into the European Union lie many concerns. How will enlargement - the biggest since the foundation of the EU in 1957 - influence the lives of countries and individuals.

The division between Eastern and Western Europe is ceasing to exist, at least in a political sense. What impact will the new Europe have on the humanitarian agenda and how the Red Cross responds to it? These were the main topics at a Conference of Central European Red Cross Societies and their partners from all over Europe held in Bratislava on June 13-14.

“The Red Cross in Central Europe is going through two major changes: EU enlargement and stabilisation of the situation in the Balkan countries,” said Lynette Lowndes, head of the International Federation’s Europe Department, in her opening speech.

It was in this context that representatives from 22 European Red Cross societies and their colleagues from the Federation, the ICRC and the American Red Cross discussed their vision, approaches, structures and expectations from their humanitarian response and cooperation.

There emerged a common concern that national Red Cross identity should be preserved, along with the existing networks and relations that have taken years to build up in Central Europe. This was matched by a concern over future relations and the possible competition for resources.

Participants came to the conclusion that EU political enlargement offers grater opportunities to respond more effectively to humanitarian challenges, whether in individual countries or in a group of them.
Some national Red Cross Societies have already tested new models of European cooperation. These include the relationships between the Nordic and Baltic states, or a recent Austrian Red Cross initiative with its Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Slovenian colleagues.

“This is our chance to get prepared for the EU,” said Tadeja Umek Zupanc from the Slovenian Rd Cross in her presentation on the three-year joint project “Make Blood Safe”.

The Hungarian Red Cross highlighted the Participatory Community Development method, started by the Federation’s regional delegation in Budapest, which has attracted attention of National Societies in Europe and other continents and which can serve as another model of international cooperation.

“The National Societies are coming to the forefront with their initiative to come together and solve problems between themselves. Now that the EU is bringing the countries together the ties will inevitably become stronger,” Lowndes says.

The Forum highlighted the importance of direct relations between neighbouring Red Cross societies and cross-border communication as a way of pooling knowledge, experience and capacities and so be better prepared to respond to humanitarian challenges.

The Federation will facilitate this dialogue but the last word will be with the National Societies. “Support each other! Challenge each other - you have the right to do it in a respectful way,” Lowndes said.

The recommendations that emerged from the meeting will considered in the Federation’s regional strategy for 2003-2006. “In future I see the regional delegation’s role as that of a consultancy house, a link for sharing the best capacities among the Red Cross national societies and other Red Cross bodies,” said Pentti Kotoaro, head of the Budapest-based delegation.

Although many of the existing EU countries are known for their international humanitarian work, they may have difficulties in addressing social challenges at home. “Most National Societies are struggling with the same problems. Discussions are of the same nature and challenges are the same. In the European humanitarian context you will be as strong as other National Societies,” said Luc Henskens, Director of the Red Cross EU Office in Brussels told the representatives of the Red Cross Societies from the accession states.

Heikki Estola from the Finnish Red Cross shared the experience of his organisation: “The EU system is very strict and bureaucratic. You will have to learn how to make good, clear proposals and find reliable partners and learn how to work together. Do not expect anything special - new positive issues yes, but not too many. The coin has two sides.”

“National Societies need to keep their own strategies and priorities, and consider European guidelines. The EU is unique in an economic sense, but each country will have their own national health, civil protection and social welfare policies to which the Red Cross will continue to be an auxiliary. Joining the EU will not change your branches, national specifics or vulnerabilities,” said Estola.

And in the coming years those vulnerabilities might worsen. The area of EU will increase by almost one-quarter, and its population by one-fifth. Seventy-five million people will join the EU’s existing 375 million inhabitants, making the enlarged Europe the world’s biggest trading bloc. But the EU will also become poorer - the average GDP per capita of the newcomers is just 40 per cent of existing EU levels.

At the same time new members will have to tighten their belts to conform to EU economic guidelines. Imposing rules on budget deficits will restrict government spending at a time when many in the East are still reliant on the state in their livelihood.

“EU enlargement is not a challenge, but an opportunity for us to get together around challenges, opportunities and needs,” said Maya Sverdruip of the Danish Red Cross. “It is a unique chance to address the existing needs that affect in the whole of Europe: HIV/AIDS, trafficking, migration.”

Related links:

Central Europe: regional appeals and reports
Red Cross/EU Office