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, lashing out at the member states for having scrapped the ambitious EU4Health programme embedded in the recovery fund.
The EU health agenda in the forthcoming seven-year budget has been undermined by the heavy cuts to the proposed €9.4 billion EU4Health Programme, which has been reduced to a mere €1.7 billion after pressure from the so-called frugal countries – Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden – at July’s EU summit.
Teaming up with the Parliament, the EU executive is ready “to remedy the cuts by the European Council” by proposing to restore, at least partially, that funding “for a future-proof EU4Health programme,” von der Leyen said.
Drawing lessons from this year’s pandemic, which exposed flaws in the EU’s health systems, she stressed it is urgent to strengthen Europe’s crisis preparedness and management of cross-border health threats.
“A virus a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand exposed how delicate life can be and it laid bare the strains on our health systems and the limits of a model that values wealth above wellbeing,” von der Leyen stressed.
For this reason, the Commission will next year convene, together with the forthcoming G20 president, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a global health summitcin Italy that “will show the Union is there to protect all.”
The Commission president also relaunched the idea of rethinking health competence, which is currently in the hands of member states.
In April, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides already highlighted the limits of the Commission’s actions during the pandemic crisis.
Rediscussing the competences on public health “is a noble and urgent task for the Conference on the Future of Europe,” von der Leyen said.
The renewed ambition on health was appreciated particularly by the Socialist group in the European Parliament, and their Portuguese MEP Sara Cerdas warned again that Parliament will not accept the €7.7 billion cuts to the health programme and
Another step to be taken on the path towards a stronger EU health Union is reinforcing the European medicine agency (EMA) and the agency for infectious diseases (ECDC), which are currently perceived as underfunded and underpowered.
They will be flanked by a new EU BARDA agency for advanced biomedical research and development to support the EU’s capacity.
The reference is to a US governmental agency, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which has played a strong role in the race to develop a vaccine.
“We need strategic stockpiling to address supply chain dependency from third countries,” von der Leyen added, referring to the idea of bringing back to Europe the manufacturing of active ingredients for drugs that will be put forward in the forthcoming EU pharmaceutical strategy.
Von der Leyen had some strong words against the concept of vaccine nationalism “which puts lives at risks”.
She recalled that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no global framework for vaccines, but just “a rush to be the first one to get one”.
This was the moment when the EU stepped up to lead the global response, according to the Commission president.
“With civil society and international organisations, we brought more than 40 countries together to get €16 billion to finance research on vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world,” she said, praising this as an example of Europe’s unmatched convening power.
But finding a vaccine is not enough, she continued, as it is important to make this vaccine available for everyone.
“We need to make sure that European citizens and those around the world have access to it,” she said, announcing that the EU had joined the COVAX global facility and contributed €400 million to help ensure that safe vaccines are available for everyone who needs them.
The Commission’s previous top health priority, the ‘Beating Cancer’ plan, was not mentioned at all.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]