Treaty change may be needed to give EU powers it needs to tackle future health pandemics

Upcoming Conference on Future of Europe touted as forum to consider implications of treaty change.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

23 Apr 2021

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Parliament EPP Group leader Manfred Weber have said that treaty change may be needed to give the EU the powers it needs help it tackle any future health pandemics.

The EU has come under fire over its Coronavirus vaccination programme, with the roll out in Europe way behind that of some other countries.

The comments from Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor came while she was taking part in an online EPP-hosted webinar on the future of the EU, a debate coming just ahead of the launch in May, of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

She admitted there had been EU shortcomings in the vaccine strategy, saying, “In some areas we are not projecting a good image.”

Such had been the vaccine shortfall in Europe Merkel said that, “some countries are using the Russian and Chinese vaccines without these first getting European Medicines Agency approval. That is not good.”

One of the “lessons to be learned from crisis”, she argued, was the possibility of EU treaty change to secure more EU powers in the health domain.

“In the health domain the EU needs more powers and competences and that may necessitate treaty change. That would be important and I am always open to treaty change” German Chancellor Angela Merkel

She told the conference, “For me it’s clear this is a global challenge and a European response is needed but we were not well prepared enough because health is not an EU competence.

“The virus, though, does not respect borders so, when there are health threats like this, you need to make a better and more coordinated response.”

Pressed on whether the EU had got its vaccine procurement wrong, Merkel said, “It’s wrong to divide this into black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. It was correct that the EU bought its vaccines together. We are in an internal market, after all.”

“Sometimes the EU is slower than others but the European Commission cannot do it all on its own if Member States refuse to play along.”

The commission has been criticised for not moving fast enough in signing deals for vaccines with pharmaceutical companies – and then moving slowly in the approval process.

Merkel, addressing the conference via a video link from Berlin, admitted, “Yes, the process has been slightly slower (than others) but we’ve not treated our pharma companies in Europe very well in recent years. Some have relocated to the US and this has had an impact on vaccine production.

“Vaccine authorisation has not been the quickest in the world but Israel could not have been vaccinated if the EU had not exported to Israel.”

“The crisis has inspired us to think bigger but the EU doesn’t have enough tools at present in certain areas and we must look at the lessons to be learned on this from the pandemic. We should use the upcoming Conference on the EU’s Future, to think long and hard as to whether we need treaty change” European Parliament EPP Group leader Manfred Weber

To those who argue that member states should have been allowed to procure their own supplies, she said, “It would have been disastrous to work on our own. Generally, the decisions taken on vaccines have been the right ones and we have now managed to speed up the approval process.”

Merkel conceded, though, “In the health domain the EU needs more powers and competences and that may necessitate treaty change. That would be important and I am always open to treaty change.”

She added, "Some said we should have had national vaccine programmes but many EU countries, mostly smaller ones, would not have had a chance to buy vaccines on their own. That would not have been fair and would have disturbed the EU.”

Taking part in the same opening panel debate on the future of the EU, Manfred Weber, the German leader of the European Parliament’s largest political group, the European People’s Party, struck a slightly more upbeat note, predicting that “by end of the summer we should have many of our EU citizens vaccinated. The figures are positive and we could be the first continent to get all its shots.”

“That gives hope and Europeans can be proud of this.”

Weber added, “The crisis has inspired us to think bigger but the EU doesn’t have enough tools at present in certain areas and we must look at the lessons to be learned on this from the pandemic.”

“We should use the upcoming Conference on the EU’s Future, to think long and hard as to whether we need treaty change.”

The Conference on the Future of Europe, starting on 9 May, will look at ways of reforming the EU, including possible treaty changes.

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