The European experience with COVID-19 pandemic has once again revealed an inconvenient truth. Despite screams and lies coming from various eurosceptic politicians from all around the Europe, it is clear that the European union (EU) can only be as powerful as its Member States allow it to be. At the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, during the early spring last year, leaders of individual Member States feared from the new situation and have imposed restrictions which prohibited the export of medical devices to the most affected countries at that time, like for example Italy. Member States have adopted unilateral measures to counter the spread of the virus. Those have proved to be not only ineffective, but also disruptive to vital supply chains and the mobility of millions of citizens by ultimately preventing the flow of essential goods and people across the Union. These fragmented efforts in tackling cross-border health threats have made all Member States collectively more vulnerable. From the beginning, the EU couldn’t act directly to save people’s lives, even in an emergency situation, only Member States were entitled to do so.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it blatantly clear, that health can no longer be only a national issue.
EU and its coordinated action has made a difference and helped to save people’s lives. This shouldn’t be only a case of COVID-19, similar cooperation is needed also in the fight with other diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and many others. Based on this experience, the only way for EU and its member states to effectively protect public health, can be through the adoption of binding legislation and by relying on non-health-related competences, which are dispersed across the EU Treaties.
By no surprise, the vast majority of European citizens is now expecting the EU to play a more vital role in protecting their health, especially from the threats that threaten not only single states, but the whole Europe and the entire world. The common health policy is the third most common answer to the question of what would be most helpful for Europe’s future. The excessive mortality caused by COVID-19 has shown the tragic consequences of the minimalist involvement of EU in the area of public health. The damage caused by pandemic in the society and its various sectors has shown that health is the main precondition for us to function normally and sustainably. Therefore, we have a unique opportunity to discuss and rethink the role that EU should play in the health sector, which should be the main topic concerning the creation of the European Health Union.
Suitable forum for this discussion can be represented by the Conference of the Future of Europe which is starting already in May. If the outcome of the Conference will be that there is a need to go much further, the current proposals from the European Commission might need to be elaborated.
Despite the progress in vaccination, COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately still ongoing and we don’t know for how long. It is important for European institutions to tackle the root causes of what has prevented the EU from responding effectively from the early beginning of pandemic. Reasons for the lack of response can most likely be seen in the structural inequalities in health care capacity across the individual Member States. This includes differences in public investments to the health care systems, related inadequate availability of services, mainly in rural areas, or various difficulties in case of the most vulnerable groups.
From my understanding European Health Union will not aim to pass current competencies from national to the European level. The expectations are that it will help Member States to build more harmonized health care systems of more consistent quality. Setting minimum European standards for the quality of healthcare can definitely help. This would entail for example the introduction of a set of common criteria to be reported from Member States on the European level and on a regular basis.
Those EU minimum standards for quality health care would guarantee European resilience in the face of pandemics and other possible public health crises, by increasing overall health care capacity across all Member States.
Levelling up health care across the EU, would address many weaknesses of today’s fragmented health care policy, including the absence of prescriptive EU supervision of the substance of preparedness plans and their enforcement. Requiring convergence among national health sectors would also help to build European health care infrastructure ahead of possible future health crises. From my point of view, this should be the right way how to strengthen the EU’s resilience to various cross-border health threats.