Is it time for the EU to take on more health responsibilities?

European citizens clearly want the EU do more in the health domain, argues Vytenis Andriukaitis.
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By Vytenis Andriukiatis

Vytenis Andriukaitis is a former European Commissioner for Health and Food safety

26 Oct 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken Europe to its core and the EU is now at a crossroads as it responds to the health, economic and social crisis.

It can choose to continue doing business as usual, with some improvements on today’s tools, or it can take on more responsibility by strengthening the Treaties in the field of health at the EU level and taking on more health responsibilities.

The Eurobarometer survey highlights European citizens’ clear preference for the EU do more in the health domain. These preferences are grounded in both the cultural fibre and fundamental socio-economic developments of the European Union.

In all European nations, the understanding of life and health as social, mental and physical wellbeing is one of the most important pillars of welfare.

The fostering of good health is the cultural backbone of our civilisation. When the French foreign minister Robert Schuman delivered his famous Declaration on 9 May 1950, he was clear about the importance of eliminating war in Europe – from the very beginning the European project has been focused on saving lives and ensuring the longevity of Europeans.

“It is now patently clear to many Europeans - including patients, healthcare professionals and progressive leaders - that health is a big issue”

The growing role of health and the importance of looking beyond national concerns to finding pan-European solutions is becoming increasingly evident in numerous modern trends.

European citizens are becoming progressively more interconnected, due, in no small part, to the expansion of the single market and Schengen area, the freedom of movement to live, work and travel, and the growth of low-cost air travel.

In the Eurozone today the health sector alone employs more labour than agriculture, fisheries, mining and heavy metal industries combined. Health should be considered in the policies of growth, employment, and the management of economic cycles.

Moreover, medical technologies have become so multifaceted that smaller Member States may not have the capacity for rare and complex diseases and the management of rare cancers.

With the public health crisis caused by COVID-19, emergencies triggered by Ebola, Zika, growing antimicrobial resistance and other challenges can no longer be considered as something “out of the blue”; in this era of globalisation and climate change, these events are occurring more and more frequently. As such, preparedness for future health challenges is as crucial as other threats to national security.

Unfortunately, until recently, the EU considered most health-related matters as the exclusive business of Member States. Until COVID-19, health remained a minor topic in the European Treaties, the European Semester and the EU Budget.

We can only hope that the underestimation of health in European policy will soon be consigned to history. It is now patently clear to many Europeans - including patients, healthcare professionals and progressive leaders - that health is a big issue.

“The EU can choose to continue doing business as usual, with some improvements on today’s tools, or it can take on more responsibility by strengthening the Treaties in the field of health at the EU level and taking on more health responsibilities”

Europeans have to seize this window of opportunity to ensure strong public action to transform cooperation at the EU level. Instead of the EU as a “bloc” that deals with the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, the “bloc” that considers monetary, banking and fiscal union, the European Union should evolve to become the Union where the lives and health of all residents matter - the European Health Union. It is time to act for better health in Europe.

The European health community was encouraged to hear Commission President Ursula von der Leyen say in her State of the Union speech that the European Health Union is now on the priority list.

Let us now start broad public debates on what the European Health Union should be about and pave the way for political processes via debates in national parliaments and governments, European Councils and, finally, the Conference on the Future of Europe to give some real clout to the EU in the area of health.

Read the most recent articles written by Vytenis Andriukiatis - EU cancer research: A firm foundation

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