European Humanitarian Conference

Interview with Jean Louis de Brouwer of the Egmont Institute

European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič visits a destroyed bridge in Irpeni, Kiev, Ukraine. European Union, 2022 (Photographer: Ramin Mazur)

Défis Humanitaires: The European Commission and ECHO are working with the Swedish Presidency of the EU to prepare the second European Humanitarian Forum, which will take place on 20 and 21 March in Brussels. What is the role of the Egmont Institute and what are the priorities of the European Humanitarian Forum? What is the main issue at stake?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: The launch of the Forum is an initiative of the Commission and of Commissioner Lenarčič in particular, who decided that it would not be just another conference but rather a process. Each year, there should be a forum, co-organized by the Commission and the presidency in office – Sweden this year, France last year, Belgium next year – which is a moment to meet around the European institutions on a certain number of fundamental issues for the humanitarian ecosystem. The idea is to organize these conversations around important and topical issues and to draw up a common agenda around operational recommendations.

This year, the Egmont Institute has been asked to provide support on certain topics to the ECHO’s Directorate General in the preparation of the Forum. For example, we participated in the organization of virtual events on the impact of climate change on the humanitarian agenda and on the lessons to be learned from the humanitarian intervention in Ukraine after the Russian aggression of 24 February 2022.

This year, one of the priorities of the Forum is undoubtedly the financing of humanitarian aid. The Commission, like others, is concerned not only about the growing gap between needs and resources, but also about the inequality in the provision of humanitarian aid. The figures are clear: global humanitarian aid relies on a limited number of donors, always the same ones. It is therefore necessary to identify new sources of funding and to broaden the donor community around a new discourse on humanitarian aid.

Another theme will of course be climate change, which is certainly a risk multiplier, and which must be integrated into the modalities of humanitarian intervention. Ukraine is unfortunately still on the agenda: last year, the forum took place one month after the Russian aggression and obviously the subject largely dominated the debates. It will be present again this year, notably through the lessons to be learned from the humanitarian presence but also on the conditions of its long-term sustainability in the face of the multiplication or persistence of other humanitarian emergencies.

The Forum should also be an opportunity to revisit some of the issues discussed during its first edition, primarily the crucial questions of access to vulnerable populations and respect for international humanitarian law.

The challenges of locating humanitarian aid and its logistics should also be on the agenda.

Syrie. @SolidaritesInternational

Défis Humanitaires: As you mentioned earlier, the Forum is part of the humanitarian priorities defined with a trio of states within the framework of COHAFA (France originally, Sweden today, Belgium next year). Where are we today with the priority defined within the framework of this trio (for 18 months). Where do we stand and what remains to be done in the 6 months of the Swedish presidency until the end of June 2023?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: You put your finger on what is undoubtedly one of the structural weaknesses in the development of the humanitarian agenda. I have always been struck by the fact that humanitarian policies are not structured in the same way as other policies, which would allow for a much more systematic follow-up. Numerous texts, declarations, resolutions and reports are adopted in various contexts, European or otherwise, without any real governance emerging from them. This is certainly the case at the global level after the relative failure of the world humanitarian summit in Istanbul. This gives an indication, which is not unfounded, of the recurrence of certain themes that constantly come up without the impression of having made any progress in the meantime.

At the European level, the Commission presented a communication on humanitarian aid in 2021, which was the subject of Council conclusions and a European Parliament resolution. The initiative to make the forum a process is a response to this need for follow-up, continuity and readability. At present, we lack a scoreboard that would allow us to provide a precise and documented response to the question raised.

Défis Humanitaires: The Commission has mentioned in one of its documents “A global effort to increase resources for humanitarian action in the face of growing needs”. However, in recent years the budget for humanitarian aid has remained stable (around 30 to 32 billion dollars), while the United Nations estimates the amount needed this year at 50 billion dollars, at the risk of forgetting many people and populations at risk in the world due to insufficient resources. What can be done and how can we mobilize these 50 billion dollars or more this year, at a time when the earthquake in Turkey and Syria reminds us of our obligations of solidarity?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: Your question is a perfect illustration of the weakness of the humanitarian policy framework that I mentioned earlier: the issue of financing humanitarian aid is anything but new. 10 years ago, a high-level group was set up to reflect on this issue, and its report led to the establishment of a negotiation process known as the “grand bargain”, which in turn led to several recommendations. And yet we are still here today. Clearly, there is a governance deficit.

There are many solutions. The most frequently mentioned is to solicit other donors, especially the Gulf countries. Thus, Commissioner Lenarčič defends the urgency of making the beneficiaries of the consequences of the geo-economic imbalances that we are currently experiencing contribute. But the European Union will only be credible and legitimate in such an approach if it first puts its own house in order. There is indeed a great disparity in the contributions of member states to humanitarian action. Ideas are circulating, inspired by the new Spanish law which sets objectives for the allocation of the budget to development objectives but also to humanitarian aid.

This is a recurring debate that will not be resolved unless we move beyond the usual terms of reference. Ukraine gives us food for thought in terms of new paradigms. Considering the enormous support effort of the European Union to Ukraine, excluding arms deliveries, the essential vehicle is obviously the macro-financial assistance that allows the Ukrainian public service to continue to function against all odds despite the extraordinary pressure that the conflict and the war represent on the population and the economic activity. It is the macro-financial assistance that helps pay the teachers, the medical staff, that helps the public service of a country that is not in ruin to continue to function. Elsewhere, in Yemen or Afghanistan, for example, these needs will be covered by humanitarian spending, which raises questions about the nature of the latter.

Another question that remains unresolved is that of estimating needs and in particular identifying those on which humanitarian aid should be concentrated and those that should be left to other financial flows. Here again, the situation in Ukraine, which unfortunately seems to be that of a prolonged conflict, constitutes a possible opportunity that should be seized to break out of a debate that has been stuck in a deadlock.

The nexus, i.e., the better coordination between humanitarian and development funding, is not a gadget but an essential issue. Dealing with the consequences of climate change in a region such as the Horn of Africa requires a good understanding of the limits of humanitarian intervention and its coordination with other financial instruments, including those that are today specifically intended to compensate for the damage caused by this change.

Ukraine: Life is a daily struggle for IDPs Photo credit: UNHCR/Y.Gusyev, Eastern Ukraine

Défis Humanitaires: You mentioned Ukraine several times, specifically the war in Ukraine and its global and lasting geopolitical consequences, some even speak of a rupture comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. So don’t the geopolitical consequences, the growing impact of global warming and the increasing scarcity of available water change the situation for humanitarian action, which should adapt to meet both the scale of needs and to rethink itself?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: Absolutely, we are facing a historic turning point whose consequences we do not yet fully understand. The time will probably soon come for the European Union to rethink its project and its architecture, just as it did after the Second World War and just as it did imperfectly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The same embarrassed silence that is being used today to oppose Ukraine’s request for membership to the Balkan countries cannot be used against them, but that is another issue.

A space for change is therefore opening up. And this obviously also concerns humanitarian intervention. The latter has too often been the European Union’s presence by default, for example in the Middle East. If the EU intends to become a global geopolitical actor, or if circumstances force it to do so, as in Ukraine, humanitarian aid will have to be part of this agenda. The article of the Treaty that is the legal basis for humanitarian intervention does, of course, set out the principles that should guide it, but it does so after specifying that this intervention is part of the Union’s external action priorities. This integration implies a double movement: the acceptance that humanitarian action does not take place in a geopolitical vacuum and the understanding by European diplomacy that it is accountable for humanitarian action based on intangible principles which are only the translation of the values of which the Union is the first guarantor.

Défis Humanitaires: Let’s go further on this subject: is there not a major challenge for humanitarians in the field, those who implement, to continue to expand their aid according to their principles and practices in a part of the world that does not adhere or no longer adheres to the Western model, and that sometimes even vigorously challenges it? How to ensure the indispensable humanitarian action throughout the world in the face of this challenge of acceptance? How can we act in these countries that challenge what they call “Western hegemony”, including its values?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: The European Union, which during the first part of its history was mainly preoccupied with its internal development, must today turn towards the outside and understand its weaknesses and dependencies. This is an indispensable condition for the search for strategic autonomy. However, it must not be overly modest, but adapt its behaviour in the face of an environment that is not convinced at first sight of the superiority of its model. This also applies to humanitarian aid.

Many people are now talking about decolonizing humanitarian aid: we need to get away from the idea that humanitarian aid is generously granted by a North that is steeped in values to a South or an East that is essentially defined by a situation of need.

The first issue is the principle of neutrality. Ukraine is once again a test case. The European Union cannot be seen as a neutral donor. But how then can it have access to areas that are not under the control of the Ukrainian government?  The ICRC is the only humanitarian organization that manages to do this, but the European Union is not the ICRC. And this reflection cannot be detached from that on localization.

A new discourse on humanitarian aid must be defined, which will also be correlated with questions of financing and the mobilization of donors.

Two conceptions are emerging in this respect: one is utilitarian, emphasizing that humanitarian aid is a means of stabilizing populations, preventing migratory flows and securing geographical areas. Needless to say, humanitarians see a major risk of instrumentalization. An alternative version refers to the consolidation of the resilience of communities, but it does not discriminate between what is support for sustainable development. The other insists on values: respect for humanity, human life, and the protection of the most vulnerable are a common good and any failure to do so will have global consequences comparable to those caused by denial or inertia in the face of climate change.

Food distribution, refugee camp, Iraq. @SolidaritesInternational

Défis Humanitaires: The second humanitarian forum should be followed by other forums. In the future, and in this case, what role could it play, what consequences could it have for ECHO but also for its partners, the various humanitarian actors, in this international context that is at odds with what we knew before the war in Ukraine, less than a year ago today?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: Once again, the Forum’s initiative must be part of a process that allows us to systematically record progress in the implementation of recommendations and to measure the impact of changes on the humanitarian agenda. Clearly, between 2022 and 2023, the two major developments are: the humanitarian intervention in Ukraine and the still visible impact of climate change.

The Forum must offer a moment of hindsight in relation to developments since the previous edition and above all support the development of an agenda that is much more operational, with clauses for meetings, such as perhaps on international humanitarian law this year, on financing next year, etc.

The European Union, because it remains one of the main donors of humanitarian aid, has a considerable role to play. It must move the humanitarian community towards other approaches to a mission that remains absolutely fundamental by adapting it to a changing context whose future developments are largely unpredictable.

Défis Humanitaires: Would you like to add anything in conclusion?

Jean-Louis De Brouwer: Humanitarianism is today at the centre of and reveals strategic issues for humanity, whether it be war, climate change or migration.  Humanitarianism is part of the advocacy of the universality of a certain number of values and it is essential that humanitarians, who are in no way the guardians of these values, become aware of this and accept to leave their comfort zone to engage in these debates.

Jean-Louis de Brouwer

Jean-Louis De Brouwer is director of the European Affairs Program at the Egmont Institute. He joined the Institute in October 2019, after retiring from the European Commission where, as Director, he was successively in charge of immigration, asylum, visa and border policies (DG Justice and Home Affairs), implementation of the EU2020 agenda and employment. policies (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion) and humanitarian aid operations and policies (DG Civil Protection and European Humanitarian Aid Operations).
He holds a Master’s degree in Law, Sociology and Public Administration/International Relations from the Catholic University of Leuven (UCL). Before joining the European Commission, he held various positions in the Belgian civil service (Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Interior) and was Director General of the International Institute of Administrative Sciences.
He teaches public law, political science and European politics at the Université Saint Louis de Bruxelles (USL-B) and at the Université Catholique de Mons (FUCAM). He is a lecturer in theories of international relations and on “An area of freedom, security and justice” at UCL and USL-B respectively. He is also responsible for a course on immigration and humanitarian policy at the College of Europe of the University of Parma.