Speech by the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, at the International donors’ conference for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia after the floods

Brussels, 16 July 2014

Dear President Izetbegović, dear President Nikolić, Prime Ministers, Ministers, Ambassadors, distinguished guests, dear colleagues.

Thank you for coming to Brussels for today’s international donor’s conference in support of the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of Serbia after the devastating floods that swept through both countries. I am particularly pleased to welcome President Izetbegović and President Nikolić among us today. I would like to thank Prime Minister Bratušek and Foreign Minister Fabius, as Slovenia and France were the inspiration for this event.

Allow me to start with four remarks.

First: Let’s not forget that the floods took a terrible human toll. I am proud of the strong and immediate European Union response through the Union Civil Protection Mechanism, followed by rapid humanitarian aid to fill the immediate needs of the most vulnerable populations. It has been the largest operation since the creation of the Mechanism in 2001. 23 EU Member States offered assistance such as motor boats, helicopters, pumps and humanitarian kits, and approximately 800 relief workers were deployed to the two countries during the emergency operations.

Second: We owe it to the victims of this disaster, but also to those who were left without their houses – we have to help Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to rebuild the damage caused by the floods. There are immediate needs to rehouse those whose homes have been swept away, and also to reconnect essential infrastructure to rebuild communities.

Third: It is also important to recall that during the rescues, out of the 23 Member States participating, Slovenia was the first one to arrive on the ground and France was one of the last ones to leave. Prime Minister Bratušek, Minister Fabius, you jointly represent the best symbol of continuity of the EU Member States’ actions from the first to the last days.

Fourth: I also want to thank other states and organisations outside the EU, many of whom are represented here today, for showing their solidarity and delivering emergency aid when it was most needed. Whether it was Russian aircraft and emergency teams, US helicopters, Turkish search and rescue teams or donations from Norway, Iran, Belarus or the UN: nobody stayed indifferent and people and states around the world offered their help.

Europe, and the European Union, should lead by example. Later today, the European Commission will announce the nature of our pledge to countries that are our neighbours in the heart of Europe and which aspire to become our member States.

However, the purpose of today’s event should go beyond pledging financial support for reconstruction. We hope that we can use this opportunity to develop policies and projects to help Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to deal with similar natural disasters in the future.

These floods were the worst in the region since records began 120 years ago. We cannot ignore the warnings: scientific analyses conclude that due to climate change, in the future, the Western Balkans region will be more prone to extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts, flash floods, cyclones and wildfires. We therefore need to think about how to improve flood prevention and management, river basin management and civil protection.

Such improvements are difficult and costly. But they will always be less costly than reconstructing after a disaster. Every Euro invested in reducing the risk of disaster brings 4 – 7 times more in return, in terms of reduced damage costs.

I hope we can use this moment of solidarity to help ensure that the countries of this region never have to endure the same destruction as we witnessed in May. We can only achieve this through enhanced regional governance and cross-border cooperation. The rivers that burst their banks pass through several countries, therefore response to prevent future damage also has to involve several of them. This includes climate-proofing measures when developing flood risk management plans, as well as infrastructures and prevention systems in the river basins.

We also need to encourage flood risk and river basin management plans so that measures in one country will not increase flooding in countries upstream or downstream in the same river basin. This involves developing and introducing proper land use planning, including promoting sustainable land use practices that improve water retention. Energy production also needs to be diversified to avoid depending mainly on generation capacity (including mines) that is vulnerable to flooding.

If I were to retain one lesson from this dramatic natural disaster, this would be the urgent call for increased regional coordination. This was a regional disaster and we need countries to work together to ensure that it never happens again.

We would be most willing to support the region’s efforts to strengthen co-ordinated measures linked to flood prevention and management or river basin management. We therefore intend to pledge assistance to this end, including using our own support from the Western Balkans Investment Framework to leverage investment for projects in this area.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In terms of policy objectives, I would also like to highlight the role of civil protection mechanisms. I invite Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to express their interest in joining the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism. We hope that this will help you to adopt best practices, harmonise procedures with other European Union Member States, and benefit from international cooperation in this field, whilst also increasing your own capability to develop national civil protection systems.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our commitment to you will be durable: it will remain as strong as ever over time. In six months’ time, the Commission will host a follow-up conference to track progress in implementing of what has been pledged today.

In the meantime, I invite Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to continue to take ownership of their reconstruction effort. The Commission is honoured to host this event today, but the responsibility for implementation lies with the beneficiaries. As donors, we will feel reassured if Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina take over the responsibility for donor co-ordination.

Six months from now, when the follow-up event takes place, I trust that the emergency work will have been finished and that, thanks to your hard work and our solidarity, the reconstruction work will be well on its way to being finalised. I also hope that we will be able to say that we are taking measures to ensure that any future floods never cause the same devastation.

I wish you all a successful meeting and would now like to invite Commissioner Georgieva, who will address you later on, to take the floor – if she wished –for some introductory works from her side on the immediate response which is her domain.

Thank you for your attention.