Commission defends public health in the EU

Quality of treatment in the EU still depends on your wallet, says an MEP. [Aaron Fulkerson/Flickr]

The Juncker Commission is often criticised by campaigners for its lack of health priorities. But the executive still defends the state of public health in the EU.

When it comes to health issues, the EU is facing many challenges, such as changing demographics, and a rise in the number of lifestyle-related diseases that are putting a financial burden on healthcare systems. Policymakers are also discussing how to provide universal healthcare for the asylum seekers who are arriving in Europe.

But the European Commission is often slammed by health NGOs for refusing to come up with new legislative proposals or delaying promised actions, and reports.

The Commission could, for example, also do more when it comes to coordination, and exchanging best practices between national health systems, according to Yannis Natsis, a policy coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

“We see unfortunately that for the current Commission, health is not at the very top of the political agenda, even though we believe that there is plenty of potential for the EU to fulfill,” Natsis said at a debate in Brussels organised on Tuesday (16 February) by the European Policy Centre think tank.

“There is the space and there should be the political will as well. There are plenty of areas where there can be cooperation and synergies,” he added.

Isabel de la Mata from the Commission’s DG for Health and Food Safety (SANTE) acknowledged that she often gets the impression that she always has to defend the European Commission’s policies.

However, the EU’s executive body has made a lot of improvement recently in the areas of rare diseases, antibiotic resistance, health technology and the new tobacco directive, she said.

“The state of health in the EU is wonderful compared with what we had 10 years ago,” de la Mata said, “and here I’m not comparing with 3rd World countries.”

“We have, in the 28 member states, public, universal healthcare which covers almost everything,” the Commission’s representative added.

Universal healthcare for the rich?

However, Philippe De Backer, a European Parliament member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), challenged this view.

He stressed that there are still cases where the quality of treatment depends on what an individual patient can afford despite the universal healthcare promise.

Though De Backer agreed that the European Commission could do more in terms of prevention, for example by collecting and analysing big data to detect the early stages of disease, the MEP also argued that more health legislation wasn’t necessarily needed.

“I’m afraid that we legislators often overstep and that we go into an almost repressive state of mind, saying ‘you can’t do this and that anymore’. We have to find the balance there,” he said.

From the healthcare providers’ point of view, “time” is of the essence, according to Birgit Berger, the secretary general of the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME).

She said the Working Time Directive has not been implemented everywhere in Europe in the same manner or in line with the directive, saying this was an issue for doctors.

“There’s a need for a strong medical workforce. There is a lack of doctors and there’s a lot of pressure on doctors within Europe so we need to have supporting working conditions in order to provide the best care for patients and a high quality of healthcare,” she said.


As part of the so-called European Semester, the cycle of economic and fiscal policy coordination in the EU, since 2011, the European Commission has looked into reforms of national healthcare systems to assess the state of health in the EU, even though this is an area in which the EU has few powers over member states.

  • 24 February: European Parliament presents its own report on the European Semester cycle. The event is part of the ‘European Parliamentary Week’.

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