Visegrad countries have not been very supportive so far of the idea to give EU institutions a bigger say in health matters, an idea that has been recently re-launched by the European Commission. EURACTIV’s network report.
There is no love lost between Brussels and Visegrad when it comes to public health and the pandemic might have exacerbated this bad blood.
Last spring, the V4 countries – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – criticised the EU for not providing member states with masks and other equipment in the midst of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now they are blaming Brussels for the slow vaccine roll-out. “Unfortunately, it can be said that the EU purchasing policy will be partly responsible for the fact that we have the third wave of the pandemic in Europe,” Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski put it bluntly recently.
The Hungarian government’s official coronavirus site turns up the heat as it regularly notes in its COVID-related news that “since only a few vaccines are arriving slowly from Brussels’ acquisitions, Hungary is doing everything to secure enough jabs to start mass vaccinations”.
Not surprisingly, V4 countries did not take well the Commission’s recent drive to rethink health competence, which is currently in the hands of member states.
In her first State of the Union speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the need to build a stronger European Health Union.
In this context, rediscussing the competences on public health “is a noble and urgent task for the Conference on the Future of Europe,” von der Leyen said. However, the idea of giving the EU more powers in the health sector has not mustered huge support from Visegrad.
Slovak Ministry of Health told EURACTIV.sk that they “welcome and support the establishment of the European Health Union” in order to “strengthen the EU’s resilience in case of cross-border health crises.”
They noted that “the lessons learned from this pandemic show that joining forces helps to overcome the weaknesses of individual member states’ health systems.”
Still, despite such a positive statement, the Commission’s health union proposal has hardly been publicly debated in Slovakia.
Last November, the EU executive laid out the first building blocks of a broader package aimed at establishing the European Health Union.
Among its main priorities is a creation of EU-wide pandemic preparedness plans and a new agency for health emergencies. The reform would also allow the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to issue policy recommendations to member states.
Slovak socialist Monika Beňová was among MEPs who fully supported the proposal to move forward with the European Health Union, including strengthening the role of several EU agencies, further building up European strategic reserves or the EU4Health programme.
This ambitious programme is embedded in Next Generation EU (NGEU), the Commission’s stimulus package launched in May to recover from the pandemic.
Another Slovak lawmaker, the liberal Martin Hojsík, believes that people rightly expect the EU to deliver in these kinds of crises.
“The lesson learned is that we need processes to enable us to proceed in a coordinated manner and this should also include new competencies,” he said, adding that, despite some setbacks, vaccine procurement should be considered a success too.
However, EU ambition will likely stop short of demanding member states to transfer more healthcare competencies to the bloc, as it could meet strong resistance.
Edina Tóth, an EU lawmaker from Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, told a plenary debate on the EU’s post-COVID healthcare strategy that she believes “we do not need the European healthcare minimum proposed by the left but the highest level of health protection for EU citizens”.
For her, the bloc should “cooperate with member states, support them and harmonise their measures.” However, she did welcome the financial resources set aside for the EU4Health program and the Commission’s earlier proposals.
István Ujhelyi, an MEP representing the Hungarian Socialist Party (S&D), in contrast, supports “rethinking certain national competence” because COVID-19 proved that some challenges can only be mitigated via cooperation.
Ujhelyi highlighted that “we need to find the golden middle road ensuring that member states’ competencies are not harmed but the lives and health are secured equally.”
Czechia and Poland remain silent
The Czech government has so far not commented on the EU Health Union proposal or even shared its views with the public.
However, the Czech Republic has not shown any intention to push for the EU to have more powers in the future when it comes to health.
Tomáš Doležal, a Czech economist focused on the pharmaceutical sector, would agree with strengthening the EU powers in the health agenda.
“One of the (strengthened) areas could be the coordination of testing, tracing, rules of movement, as well as the coordination of health capacities within cross-border care,” he told EURACTIV.cz
He added that he would certainly welcome the strengthening of Europe’s role in the joint clinical trials of new technologies through Health Technology Assessment (HTA).
After being stuck in the Council of EU ministers for more than two years, the crucial health dossier on HTA could now reach its final stage, as the Portuguese presidency managed to get a mandate to start negotiations with the Parliament.
This piece of legislation aimed to help EU countries deciding on pricing and reimbursement by health insurers or health systems.
In Poland, due to the relatively mild course of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to other parts of Europe, there has been no serious discussion on increasing the EU’s powers in matters relating to health protection.
However, it seems unlikely that the current conservative Polish government will advocate such changes, as it presents a different approach to issues such as abortion, euthanasia, infertility treatment and contraception than most member states.