Time for a European Health Union

The Coronavirus crisis clearly demonstrated the shortcomings of national competency for healthcare; the virus does not respect borders. It must be time for a European Health Union, says Dr Mohammed Chahim.
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By Mohammed Chahim

Mohammed Chahim (NL, S&D) is a member of the Special Committee on the Protection of Animals during Transport

05 Oct 2020

The Coronavirus crisis has shown that the European Union lacks effective tools for combatting emergencies that transcend national borders. When it comes to healthcare, there is currently only a minimum level of cooperation at the EU level; Member States are responsible for their own health care systems. A divided EU on health issues has shown itself to be troublesome.

Think, for example, of the battle between European countries for the last batch of masks, India blocking the export of a possible Coronavirus treatment, or Trump using a law of war to make medical equipment available to Americans only. At the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, it was “every man for himself.”

Such an approach was both incomprehensible and indefensible when it comes to our health, if you ask me. Now that we are facing a second wave of COVID-19 patients, we should focus on the future and on working together. The health law and policies adopted within a given territory are based upon the values that society holds central.

As such, through its regulatory function, health law and policy formulates, embodies and makes explicit the goals, values and ethics that underpin national health regimes. The WHO envisages health policy as the tool that specifies the health goals of a society, defines a vision for the future and, perhaps most importantly, builds consensus around that vision.

“When it comes to healthcare, there is currently only a minimum level of cooperation at the EU level; Member States are responsible for their own health care systems”

As we have clearly stated in our S&D position paper: “The right to physical and mental health is a fundamental human right. Every person, without discrimination, has the right to access modern and comprehensive healthcare. Never again can we allow doctors and nurses to be exposed to such high risk and be forced to make decisions on who can and cannot receive healthcare.” There has been a great deal of debate over whether the existing EU law provides a legal basis for establishing a European Health Union.

According to the aforementioned position paper and the latest research on this topic, there is: namely Article 168(7) TFEU. This article, combined with the use of CSRs (Country-Specific Recommendations) issued by the Commission to Member States in the context of the European Semester, can provide a strong base for our envisioned European Health Union and EU-level competences.

The CSRs and the European Semester have already marked a turning point in the Union’s approaches to Member State competences for organising their healthcare systems. The impact of the European Semester and its CSRs on the policy space of national governments is considerable, with some having even labelled it “a particularly coercive form of soft law” in the past.

I think the formation of a Banking Union following the financial crises in 2008 is a great example of a Union-level approach to preventing future crises. Based on the experience of the Banking Union experience, the CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) will also play an important role and will have to respond in a similar way, if a European Health Union is to be successfully established.

“We must work together, united and in solidarity, to make the European Health Union a success and safeguard our citizens and medical professionals against future health crises”

In this regard, and also finding support in research, I hope that the CJEU will use the same bold interpretation of EU law as it did when facilitating the creation of the Banking Union; “A good mixture of legal principle and political pragmatism.”

This neatly sums up the CJEU’s approach in most of its subsequent case law on the Banking Union and will also need to be the guiding principle for how it responds to a future European Health Union.

We must work together, united and in solidarity, to make the European Health Union a success and safeguard our citizens and medical professionals against future health crises. I am looking forward to speaking more about this topic at the European Health Forum Gastein. Looking at the line-up of this event, I am sure many of the qualified experts will have valuable ideas about the European Health Union. We have the momentum now to create something lasting and meaningful.

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