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European Leaders Agree on Flood Aid for Region - 2002-08-18

European leaders have agreed on a plan for aid to countries stricken by the region's flooding. European Union help will be provided not just for its own members, but also its neighbors to the East.

As the physical battle to control the floodwaters from Central Europe's swollen rivers continues day and night, Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder convened a summit meeting in Berlin Sunday. He invited not only European Union President Romano Prodi, but also the leaders of Austria and two candidates for EU membership, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Those nations are down river from Germany on the Danube or upriver on the Elbe, the two big European waterways that have poured millions of gallons of mud and water into dozens of cities over the past week.

Even as the summit started, news was coming in of a threat further down the Danube, in Budapest, which will face the brunt of the river's fury during the course of Monday and is hoping its 19th century flood defenses are strong enough for the record water levels of the 21st.

The European leaders agreed there is room to help not only EU member countries like Germany and Austria, but neighbors to the East, which are candidates for E.U. membership perhaps as early as 2004.

Chancellor Schroeder said the candidate countries are all part of the family now.

The aid, which would come at least in part from European Union funds, is important for his own country, as well. Historic German cities such as Dresden or Dessau and, since Sunday, also the city of Wittenberge, the home of Martin Luther and German Protestantism, have suffered terribly from the Elbe's floods. Tens of thousands have been evacuated from their homes, historic buildings are under threat and now the groundwater is rising and undermining the foundations from below.

Mr. Schroeder, who faces federal elections next month, knows his handling of the crisis must be seen to be generous and statesmanlike. He will not officially announce the amounts until Monday, after he has discussed money with his own finance minister and with the European budget experts in Brussels. But he did indicate that the European authorities in Brussels will earmark funds for flood relief through 2006. In addition, Mr. Schroeder said that the proposed 500 million euro relief fund, which requires approval by all 15 E.U. countries, will help with the cleanup.