Emancipating consumers through information will be the guiding principle of John Dalli’s mandate as commissioner for health and consumer policy, if confirmed by the European Parliament.
The long-serving Maltese politician clearly spelled out his vision for both in his three-hour hearing yesterday (14 January).
Asked by Evelyne Genhardt, former rapporteur of the controversial Bolkestein Directive, whether he was going to be consistent in his consumer protection for the service sector too, he declared that if confirmed he would be “the guardian of consumers’ interests in the college of commissioners”.
His underlying idea throughout the hearing was that the EU executive and member states need to do their utmost to inform citizens and not indoctrinate them. This nonetheless requires solid and unbiased scientific evidence.
When accused of promoting the idea of an EU resembling an intrusive nanny, he assertively rejected the accusation, citing the example of food labeling: “I do not want to tell European citizens what to eat, but I want to tell them what they are eating.”
The would-be commissioner garnered extra points when he stated that on all occasions he would consult and engage constructively with the Parliament: “I’d rather spend time earlier in the legislative process talking about policies with you than spend time fighting on policies with you at a later stage.”
He further obtained sympathy and applause when, asked if he was going to stand up to member states’ particular interests, he replied by saying that he was never afraid to introduce painful but much-needed reforms in his country, such as enforcement of taxation or liberalisation. “Making enemies at times comes with the job,” he said.
MEPs consistently tested the commissioner-designate on quality and safety in respect to both health and food policies. In particular, Dalli did not show any complacency over counterfeited foods and medicines: “I consider bogus products as fraud, and we should act accordingly.”
Health: Patient mobility, pharma package and horizontal issues
The would-be commissioner was not afraid to delve into the nitty-gritty of his portfolio, answering technical and legislatively-sensitive questions. The overall principle, in line with the fostering of consumers’ autonomy, was prevention. When asked what he would like his legacy to be in five years: he claimed he “would like to be remembered for bringing the necessary information about the impact of different lifestyles to schools”.
One area into which he promised to pour his energies was patient mobility (EURACTIV 18/07/09). He claimed that he welcomed the renewed commitment by the Spanish EU Presidency (EURACTIV 07/01/10) to brokering an agreement in the Council on this issue. He also stated that he has already contacted the Spanish health minister to discuss possible ways forward.
Another thick dossier which was the subject of MEPs’ interest was the so-called ‘pharma package’, composed of five directives which include information on prescribed medicines and the fight against falsified drugs. The commissioner-designate called for the proposal to be unbundled, allowing for quick progress on the issues where consensus can easily be built and leaving the most divisive issues to be tackled separately.
This move did not engender much enthusiasm among MEPs, who felt it could be a way to water-down the most substantial parts of the package and urged the commissioner to tread carefully in this area.
Asked to whom he would give a voice if a conflict was to emerge between the pharma industry and consumers, Dalli was quick to stress his allegiance to consumers. Nonetheless, he noted that a strong pharmaceutical sector is in the interests of European citizens since companies need to be in a position to invest in research and be at the forefront of combating diseases.
MEPs also questioned him as to which illnesses he would prioritise. He stated that in line with the mission entrusted to him by the Treaty, he would be tackling first and foremost horizontal issues such as obesity, alcoholism, drug and tobacco-related problems.
Food safety: Cloning and GMO
If confirmed, Dalli would also cover food issues in the scope of safety legislation. The Maltese politician stressed that in many areas it is necessary to act swiftly to maintain the coherence of the internal market and consumer protection.
A major commitment which the would-be commissioner made was to anticipate the drafting of a ‘Cloning Directive’ in order to regulate the production or selling of animal meat and goods obtained from cloned stocks. He also gave an indicative timeframe, claiming that the directive would appear within a year.
Genetically-modified organisms also figured highly among MEPs’ questions. They wanted answers concerning not just GM edible fruit and vegetables, but also animal feed. They were not satisfied with the asymmetries in policies between member states in this area. Dalli once again took note of this and promised to act in response to parliamentarians’ anxieties.
Finally, concerning animal welfare, Dalli was very critical of instances of animal stocks being treated with hormones that could be detrimental both to humans and animals themselves. He also said he would investigate the excessive use of antibiotics for animals, towards which viruses are becoming increasingly resistant.