EESC endorses a robust and inclusive EU Health Union

With recent surveys showing that 66% of Europeans would like the EU to have more say over health-related matters, and more than a half in favour of public health becoming the EU's top priority in terms of expenditure, the EU should start playing a more active role in protecting the health of its citizens. The EESC thinks that the Commission's recent package on an EU Health Union is a step in the right direction.

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has taken a strong stance in favour of building a European Health Union, calling on the EU and the Member States to respond to Europeans' demand that it make health a priority.

In an opinion adopted at its April plenary session, the EESC welcomed the package on an EU Health Union as the starting point for delivering on the right to good quality healthcare for all Europeans. This will ensure that good quality health services are guaranteed and available to all EU citizens, regardless of their social and economic status or their country or place of residence - which is still not the case at present.

Although the Commission's package, unveiled in November, focuses on better prevention and management of cross-border health threats and possible future pandemics, the EESC described it as an important new development that should initiate a systemic change that goes beyond pure crisis management. 

Commenting on the EESC's position, EESC president, Christa Schweng said: These initiatives are the first steps towards the genuine European Health Union we need, in which all EU Member States work together to improve prevention, treatment and aftercare of diseases. Such a Union would allow EU countries to be prepared for and manage any future health crisis together. Actions in this field also need to take into account the views of civil society and the social partners, which have played a crucial role in protecting and promoting rights during the pandemic.

The rapporteur, Ioannis Vardakastanis, said that the opinion conveyed the views of civil society organisations and individuals on the need to step up EU action in the field of health.

Our message is simple: EU citizens feel that public health should be given priority at both EU and national level, and we need to bolster the EU's role in this, he said. He also pointed out that the pandemic has highlighted the need for a shift in how we think about healthcare, clearly showing that it cannot be treated as a commodity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how vital health and care services are, but also how ill-prepared the EU is to cope with a health crisis of such immense proportions. A heavy price has been paid, partly due to the EU countries' inadequate prevention strategies and deficient healthcare systems but also due to decades of austerity and under-investment in the health sector.

Improving both the working conditions of healthcare workers, including pay and incentives to keep them working in this sector, and their health and safety is central to the success of the future European Health Union,  the EESC argued in the opinion.

The Health Union should focus on non-communicable diseases as the current pandemic has revealed their toxic relationship with communicable ones. They have proven to be a clear risk factor for COVID-19 patients, making it more likely that patients will develop severe forms of the disease or even die. There should also be a focus on mental health.

The EU's ongoing coordinated vaccination strategy and joint vaccine procurement is proving to be insufficient. In this respect, the EESC called on the Commission to ensure that vaccines remain a public good which is free and available for all people. Their future availability should not be hampered by intellectual property rights or market exclusivity.

However, the EESC also warned that the efforts to build a sound Health Union may need to expand beyond coordination alone. Once the pandemic is over, and the national and EU responses to it have been fully evaluated, there may be a case for broadening EU competences in this field through a possible revision of the EU Treaties and in line with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This would reaffirm health protection as a public good.

The Commission package plans to reinforce the EU's resilience and preparedness to deal with cross-border health crises. It also seeks to beef up the mandates of the EU's top two public health agencies: the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The EESC welcomed the proposed Regulation on serious cross-border threats to health. It pointed out that this regulation would lead to the creation of a stronger, more comprehensive legal framework which will enable the Union to better prepare for and react rapidly to crises of this kind.

It also welcomed the reinforcement of the mandates of both the EMA and the ECDC, saying that neither of them had the powers, mechanisms or resources needed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in a consistent and effective way.

However, despite applauding the package and appreciating that urgent action is needed in certain areas of EU health coordination, the EESC feels that some parts of the package are premature, since the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in Europe and we are still learning about it.

In its view, there may be some overlap between the objectives of the package's regulations and it is still unclear how the division of responsibilities between different bodies will work in practice.

The EESC asked the Commission to deliver a report by June 2021 on the lessons learned from the pandemic so far. It also called for a thorough review of the EU's central purchasing system for COVID-19 vaccines, once the pandemic is over.