EU — With Southern Europe braced for another summer of devastating forest fires, two Canadair water bomber airplanes stand on the tarmac of an airport on the French island of Corsica, ready to fly across Europe with little notice.
Unlike 300 similar planes and helicopters on standby in Europe, however, these two are contracted not to a country but to a new European Union firefighting force.
Last year, these E.U. planes answered six pleas for help, on one occasion making 52 water drops in four hours. They flew to fires in Portugal, Greece, Italy and France.
This experiment appears to contain a wider lesson for those promoting closer cooperation among the 27 nations of the European Union: Rather than thinking big, perhaps small operations work best.
On Europes southern fringes, fires take hold quickly in hot, windy conditions. In 2007, a total area of 575,000 hectares, or 2,220 square miles, in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece was burned, according to the European Forest Fire Information System, which is managed by the European Commission.
In 2003, Portugal lost around 425,000 hectares in fires that killed 21 people, according to a 2008 report commissioned by the European Parliament.
These blazes, which can cross borders, demand a European response, many officials contend.
The governments affected by fires do help one another, routinely sending planes to other countries. Portugal recently had 460 forest fires in a 24-hour period, and late last month, it asked for help. France, Greece and Italy offered water bomber planes, and the Italian offer was accepted.
But in 2007, this ad hoc system of making offers to help in emergencies came close to breaking down. That year, dangerous blazes in Greece swept close to Athens, requiring French and Italian planes to help fight the fires.
When dozens of fires broke out in mountainous parts of Bulgaria, however, its request for four helicopters with specialized water buckets and two firefighting planes could not be met.
Bulgaria made an approach, but there was nothing available, said Hans Das, who heads the E.U. office for civil protection and disaster response. Eventually, Russia provided aircraft. We felt it was unfortunate that Europe was not able to come to the aid of that country.
There are other limitations to the system of providing aid. Though helping neighbors makes practical sense, it is not without risk. All member states are facing these risks at the same time, Mr. Das said. It is a small miracle that there is so much solidarity. Each time Italy, for example, makes planes available to Portugal, it takes a risk.
That concern has led to calls for a fleet of European firefighting planes.
A report in 2006 that was ordered by the European Commission and prepared by Michel Barnier, a former French foreign minister and now a European commissioner, called for 10 firefighting aircraft to be on standby and operational within 12 hours. This was the minimum quantity required to ensure a credible European response, it said.
What is emerging is much smaller. Last year, the E.U. started a two-year trial project, supported by the European Parliament. France took the lead, renting two planes for three months during the summer and basing them at Bastia, Corsica, a midpoint for the most vulnerable region of Europe. The annual cost for the project is 3.5 million, or about $4.6 million, and France is contributing 1 million.
To handle fire emergencies, officials from different countries share information at a control room in Brussels that deals with natural disasters. The centers office has a secure communication system and many screens displaying weather charts from around Europe and beyond. The group holds weekly videoconferences that let national experts share information, showing that countries can work together, even if there is a risk.
Last July, with resources stretched, the two E.U. planes were switched from firefighting in Corsica to Italy, where the blazes posed a greater threat. That happened even though France was financing the largest share of the project.
There was no kind of questioning from France because they understood the reasoning, said one official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
This strategy fits with an approach that leaves prime responsibility for firefighting with national governments, while the E.U. assists at the margin.
We have seen that even if it is very small scale and only two planes, it can make a huge difference, said Mr. Das of the E.U. disaster office.
Last year, the two E.U. aircraft flew 285 of the 300 hours for which they were rented. This year, they have not been needed yet.
It is a delicate balancing act with the planes. If last year had been worse for forest fires, the planes would have proved insufficient. But if the European Union decided to devote too many resources to this task, individual governments might be tempted to scale back to save money.
The benefit from the experiment goes beyond firefighting.
Through the weekly videoconferences and exchange of information and discussion, Mr. Das said, the new E.U. firefighting force requires member states to work together more closely than before and to start exchanging information earlier.
The two-plane trial ends this autumn. Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for international cooperation, is scheduled to present a plan for the programs future in November.
The experience so far suggests that the original ambitions have been scaled back in favor of something more modest.
We are looking for something leaner and more flexible, Mr. Das said.