European Health Forum Gastein: The case for a European Health Union

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the EU’s strengths and weaknesses. To fail to learn from the crisis would be irresponsible, believes Sara Cerdas
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By Sara Cerdas MEP

Sara Cerdas (PT, S&D) is a vice-chair of the European Parliament's Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA)

27 Sep 2021

The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic are proving to be on the steepest and most demanding learning curves in human history. ‘No one left behind’ should be more than just a mantra; it should be at the core of our own survival.

For the European Union, this means taking the actions needed to promote healthy societies, both internally and externally. These must include measures to enact a true European Health Union that strives for the health and wellbeing of all European citizens.

In turn, these depend upon sharing health and wealth with other communities and nations around the world. As Anniek de Ruijter - Associate Professor of Health Law and Policy at the University of Amsterdam and Director of the Law Centre for Health and Life - recently put it, a European Health Union is more than just a set of ‘fire fighting’ measures to prepare for and combat other pandemics, critical as these are for now and will be for the foreseeable future. It calls for a new social contract that puts the health of European citizens at its heart.

This is why I, as a doctor and as a politician, believe that the European Health Union initiative is central to the future of Europe. Health must be integrated into all our policies for the post-pandemic recovery and beyond. Europe’s citizens want common policies; they want to share the fruits of good health; they want to see levelling up in practice - and they are right to do so.

A true Health Union must help fight inequalities not just in health outcomes but also across society as a whole. The pandemic has highlighted the role of poverty, as well as social economic status, in determining vulnerability to the Coronavirus and - critically - access to vaccines and treatments.

A genuine European Health Union needs to address the socio-economic determinants of health while recognising at same time, that environmental and commercial factors are core components in determining health. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the cross-border nature of threats to public health.

"A true Health Union must help fight inequalities not just in health outcomes but also across society as a whole. The pandemic has highlighted the role of poverty, as well as social economic status, in determining vulnerability to the Coronavirus and - critically - access to vaccines and treatments"

That’s why a true European Health Union must promote sustainability in all areas of health, including medicine production and procurement. Here, I’m not only talking about how we tackle this virus but also, for example, about the environmentally driven impact of antimicrobial resistance which poses an ongoing threat to our lives.

The EU has demonstrated its international status by standing up for the World Health Organization and, above all, by spearheading effective measures to ensure that the COVAX facility delivers millions of vaccine doses to the world’s poorest and, often, least healthy nations. Now it needs to ensure that such solidarity is written into its trade strategy so that it becomes a motor for promoting global health.

We need not wait for the end of the pandemic to start building an ambitious Health Union. Certainly, ensuring effective vaccines are available across Europe, and beyond, is still a vital task over the coming months, as is the sharing of knowhow and expertise on the need for boosters.

However, we also need to work more closely in dealing with treatments and aftercare for those diseases which - perhaps inevitably but regrettably - have been sidelined. These include cancer, a topic close to my heart and professional interest as vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA).

Improving health for all and leaving no one behind is the goal. But who should be responsible? Member States, the EU, or both? This discussion has only just begun, but it must increase its pace. Some believe a true European Health Union would require a Treaty change to give the European Commission explicit competence for health policy.

"If we truly want Europe to rise like a phoenix from this pandemic, “stronger, smarter and more equitable,” as the theme of this autumn’s European Health Forum Gastein so boldly states, health must occupy the centre stage in its recovery"

They believe their argument has been strengthened by perceived initial setbacks in the EU’s collective response to the pandemic. Others insist that it would be better to use the existing EU powers more efficiently, rather than enter the minefield of a Treaty change.

I tend to share the latter view. But there is already a forum that could address this issue and others raised by the ambition of a European Health Union worthy of the name: the Conference on the Future of Europe, launched - fittingly - on 9 May, Europe Day.

The explicit goal of the conference is to bring the EU closer to its citizens and to enhance democracy by giving them a greater voice.

And the people are raising their voices in favour of putting good health for all at the centre of EU policies. If we truly want Europe to rise like a phoenix from this pandemic, “stronger, smarter and more equitable,” as the theme of this autumn’s European Health Forum Gastein so boldly states, health must occupy the centre stage in its recovery.

This MEP article was previously published on Brussels Morning

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