MEP Patriciello: Strengthening EU powers on health is a must, COVID has shown

Italian MEP Aldo Patriciello. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report Building a stronger EU Health Union: where to start?.

Setting ambitious health targets at the European level after the COVID crisis is not only necessary but also dutiful, particularly to combat those diseases that have a negative impact on the life expectancy of citizens, centre-right wing lawmaker Aldo Patriciello told EURACTIV in an interview.

Aldo Patriciello is an Italian MEP for Europe’s People Party (EPP). He spoke to EURACTIV’s Health Editor Gerardo Fortuna.

In her State of the Union speech, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised to support the European Parliament in its attempt to restore the EU4Health fund. What would the disappearance of this fund mean in practical terms?

It is certainly a leap into the unknown, an act of political short-sightedness that need be avoided because it would mean giving up our ability to face and manage other health crises in the future.

I am thinking of either the current inequalities in access to healthcare or the obstacles to be removed for the dissemination and use of digital innovations, as well as the impact of environmental degradation, pollution and demographic change on public health. All these things need common answers.

How is the Parliament’s stance different from the one of the Council, when it comes to health?

Parliament has already shown in the past that it can look beyond the interests of individual member states. It is our duty, therefore, to ensure that the EU remains the healthiest region in the world and that it has all the tools to best tackle any new health threats that may endanger European citizens.

If there is one thing this pandemic should have taught us, it is that nobody can do it alone. If each country tries to overcome the COVID-19 problem on its own, the weakness of the EU will be equal to that of its weakest link. And that is a risk we cannot take.

What should be the priorities for health spending in the coming years?

We face major challenges. And the ongoing pandemic is just one of them. I believe that setting ambitious health targets is not only necessary but also dutiful.

We must work to improve key policies for health systems, such as those that condition the access to care, good quality of services, transparency of management and the efficiency of the organisation in general.

And then, we must focus on the fight against those diseases that have a very negative impact on the life expectancy of European citizens, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer. From this point of view, much has been done but there is still much more to do.

The additional funds for the new Horizon have also been scaled down after the European summit.

It is clear that a reduction in funding for Horizon Europe means undermining our capacity for innovation. At the same time, it must be remembered that the EU’s great effort to get the continent’s entire economy back on its feet represents a historic turning point.

I am certain that the whole of Europe will emerge stronger from it. There will be time and way to make up for the Council’s downward agreements.

What do you think of the debate on increased EU competence in public health? 

The COVID-19 crisis is the biggest challenge the European Union has faced since World War II. And it has shown that the way to strengthen EU powers on health is a must. Every national health system struggled to cope with this crisis and this affected all citizens in one way or another. One cannot just turn a blind eye.

The fight against cancer seems out of the spotlight although it was one of the von der Leyen Commission’s main objectives. How do you see the Parliament’s work on the issue?

I think it is normal that in recent months media attention has been focused on the health emergency and its impact on our economies. This does not mean, however, that we are not working on policies to combat cancer.

In recent weeks I have participated in several thematic webinars in which the need to increase EU attention on the fight against cancer has been discussed. In addition, on 1 July we officially presented the first European Parliament intergroup dedicated to cancer.

It is a fundamental step forward: for the first time, Parliament has decided to provide itself with a dedicated forum where MEPs from all political parties will be able to dialogue and confront each other and their stakeholders. The goal is ambitious but within our reach: to double the amount invested in cancer research by 2024.

Do you think that the nutritional care aspect – a topic which will be treated in a digital event organised by the European Nutrition for Health Alliance (ENHA) – is becoming increasingly important when it comes to health after the unveiling of the EU food policy, the Farm to Fork Strategy (F2F)?

Having a more sustainable agri-food system is certainly an important factor. If it is true that we are what we eat, it is undeniable that reducing the use of pesticides will have a positive impact on the quality of what we put on the table and on the health of citizens in general.

Having said that, I believe it is important to work on an integrated approach, covering both production and consumption and distribution methods. The nutritional aspect is becoming increasingly important with regard to its effects on health. The EU’s commitment is a tangible sign of this increased awareness.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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