Juncker’s State of the Union: A historic opportunity fumbled

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Jean-Claude Juncker [European Parliament]

Jean-Claude Juncker had the unique opportunity to make his State of the Union speech special. Unfortunately, he left many of Europe’s “monumental” challenges unaddressed, writes Kristina Sperkova.

Kristina Sperkova is the president of IOGT International, an organisation that campaigns for evidence-based policy measures and community-based interventions to prevent and reduce harm caused by alcohol and other drugs.

There’s no shortage of urgent crises that demand political leadership and vision. The refugee crisis, the turmoil in Greece, the conflict in Ukraine and the looming climate change negotiations in December are but a few examples. And then there’s one crisis that is routinely and conspicuously absent from Jean-Claude Juncker’s radar.

This is Europe’s public health crisis, driven by Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and lung disease.

Three points illustrate the story:

  • 85% of the disease burden in Europe is made up of NCDs.
  • NCDs burden the EU with massive costs. For example, cancer costs the EU over €50 billion in lost productivity, and heart disease costs around €30 billion in informal healthcare costs.
  • This already staggering burden is growing, and deaths due to NCDs are set to keep rising. In 2015, almost 9 million Europeans will die from preventable NCDs.

I think it is important for Juncker to address the refugee crisis, and to dedicate much time of his speech to this emergency issue. As a citizen of Europe, I wish that the continent responded to the crisis by being human and supporting our fellow humans in need.

But as a European citizen, I am also deeply concerned about the political priorities of Team Juncker. The Luxembourger has outlined 10 priorities for his Commission. And he keeps failing to realise that many of these priorities are negatively impacted by the rising burden of NCDs and their four major risk factors, alcohol, tobacco, physical inactivity and poor diet.

‘Boosting jobs and growth’ is impeded by alcohol harm burdening productivity, and by generating massive costs for welfare and healthcare systems.

A ‘forward-looking climate change policy’ will not be possible if Europe fails to curb powerful food corporations, which fuel both obesity and climate change with their unethical practices.

A ‘reasonable and balanced free trade agreement with the United States’ is useless. The promised benefits from TTIP are pale compared to the costs imposed on Europe by NCDs. According to the CEPR study commissioned by the EU, it is predicted that “an ambitious TTIP deal would increase the size of the EU economy around €120 billion”. To put that in perspective, the financial burden of alcohol harm in the EU is €156 billion every year, and the annual cost of tobacco related disease in the EU amount to €100 billion.

Team Juncker envisioned the EU as “an area of justice and fundamental rights” but the European Commission continues to fail to protect the Rights of the Child. Fast food and sugary drinks companies continue with their bonanza of targeted advertising, fuelling an obesity crisis in Europe. 9 million children in the EU have to grow up in homes with at least one parent with alcohol use disorder.

The tenth priority of building ‘a Union of democratic change’ seems a distant dream, too. European citizens and civil society experience that the EU is a lobbying feast for multinational corporations. The tobacco and alcohol industries find open doors, while citizens find deaf ears.

In the aftermath of the State of the Union speech, much criticism has been voiced on the messy reality of what he actually said. My worries are with what Jean-Claude Juncker did not say, and with what he continues to ignore.

In an EU with an aging population, with the effects of the economic and financial crisis still lingering and public spending still tight, urgent action and political leadership are needed to ensure the sustainability of the healthcare and welfare systems, under pressure from NCDs.

But before we can even imagine taking action, we need political attention and awareness among Europe’s political elite for the fact that NCDs, driven by alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, are real problems for millions of people around Europe. We need this silent epidemic to be put on the radar. It is this historic opportunity, in a “monumental” moment, which the Commission President unfortunately fumbled.

NCDs are largely preventable and their risk factors can be modified and curbed. My hope is that Team Juncker takes a good look at their ten priorities and realises the 11th one is health promotion. My hope is that Europe’s exective hears the calls, from civil society and citizens, from European countries that adopted the WHO NCDs Global Action Plan in 2013, from the European Parliament that called for a new EU Alcohol Strategy or the calls from the Council of Ministers who are determined to address obesity in Europe.

When monumental opportunities are fumbled, it’s about owning up to it and following the guidance already provided by evidence and credible partners. History will judge Team Juncker on whether or not it was able to rise to the occasion.

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