EU role vital in China, Burma disasters

IT takes real tragedy sometimes to underline the importance of working together across the nations. The recent earthquake in China and the cyclone before it in Burma have filled our newspapers, television and radio this past week.

Richard Howitt MEP

IT takes real tragedy sometimes to underline the importance of working together across the nations. The recent earthquake in China and the cyclone before it in Burma have filled our newspapers, television and radio this past week.

The scenes have been both horrific and heart rending, with the pain, agony, suffering and death of so many, so many thousands of miles away.

An Essex couple caught on a wildlife holiday in the middle of the earthquake region brought clearly to us in interviews how close to home such tragedy can threaten.

And there is a massive groundswell of sympathy and support for those who have suffered from people here in this country.

Today in Strasbourg the European Parliament debates the principle of aid giving and how to improve Europe's response to humanitarian crisis and development.

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The European Union immediately despatched over £1.5 million in aid to the Sichuan province in China and continues to supply professional support, as that whole nation ends its three-day period of national mourning.

The emergency relief funding from Europe will pay for tents and blankets, clean drinking water, food, jerry cans, kitchen sets and medical assistance.

The situation in Burma has been much more difficult, given the almost total reluctance of the country's military dictatorship to accept outside aid.

As your representative, I called in a European Parliament debate for access for air agencies to the country. I also questioned the Slovenians who currently chair European meetings on what more diplomatic pressure they could make.

Thankfully now even Burma has agreed to international aid, though only administered through neighbouring Asian countries.

Top European Union aid officials have this week finally been issued with visas for entry but the EU has steered clear of a threat to impose aid, arguing instead that all help would be entirely neutral, impartial and independent.

The sad part is that if any aid does eventually arrive then it will be much too late and so much more could obviously have been done.

The debate in the European Parliament today is to ensure that aid is not only available for emergency situations such as in China and Burma, but also to help poorer nations develop in the longer term.

The principles that Labour MEPs want to see enshrined in European aid programmes are that the help is accountable and the programmes effective in the battle against poverty.

The debate will centre on how to enhance the effectiveness of aid, based on international negotiations, European cooperation and mutual accountability, and ensure that it helps fight poverty around the world.

The European Union - that amalgam of us all that makes us collectively stronger - is the world's leading donor of aid to the poorer nations.

The natural disasters of China and Burma make it clear that the international community has a duty to help those in need elsewhere in the world.

Today in Strasbourg we will go further to ensure that Britain together with our European partners offers the hand of help to those in need.

RICHARD Howitt is Labour MEP for the East of England

Richard Howitt MEP is Labour Euro MP for the East of England region including Essex and Suffolk. Contact richardichardhowittmep.com.