The past year has highlighted Europe’s struggles in institutionalized cooperation in the field of health. As a result, our health systems suffered under the weight of the pandemic. Indeed, when the first cases of infection by SARS-CoV-2 reached European hospitals and families, coordination attempts were faulty. The existent infrastructure and agencies could not work quickly enough to assist Member States adequately in the height of the crisis. Later on, Europe did come together to provide relief to Member States which had been disproportionately hit by the virus.
European solidarity was truly on display in these moments, for instance through the mobilization of emergency medical support teams and critical medical devices and equipment to several Member States whose health systems were at breaking point.
However, these relief actions relied mostly on ad hoc mechanisms and did not fix the underlying problem: lack of institutional coordination to prevent and rapidly assist Member States in moments of serious health threats.
Due to the challenges faced by Member States from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan to build a true European Health Union arose as a top priority in the European legislative agenda. As of May 2021, it is no longer simply a plan. Significant advances have been made by the Council of the European Union on the proposals set forth by the Commission in late 2020, to strengthen the mandates of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Alongside these legislative proposals, the ongoing revision of Decision 1082/2013 on serious cross-border health threats has also made noteworthy strides.
When these legislative proposals are approved, Member States can expect to benefit from comprehensive platforms devoted to information sharing on multiple levels. Through the extension of the mandates of these key European Agencies, and with the support of the infrastructure reform brought by the revision of the EU’s current framework for handling serious cross-border health threats, Member States will fully make use of the best European expertise in the field of health.
The full length of the new competences granted to the ECDC and the EMA will enable these agencies to assist Member States the form of continuous, integrated monitoring of health challenges.
Recommendations on what measures to adopt in order to control an outbreak, such as targeted advice on the supply of medical devices in moments of crisis, will also play a key role in the integrated approach sought by the establishment of a European Health Union.
The setup of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), tasked with providing a dedicated structure to support the development, manufacturing, and deployment of medical products during a health crisis will also play an important role in strengthening our collective response to health threats. Its adoption by the Commission, scheduled for the third quarter of 2021, will be a crucial milestone in the pursuance of the abovementioned goals.
Finally, as we move forward with our plan to build a more resilient Europe in the field of Health, we must broaden our focus to include non-communicable diseases – which hold the higher levels of mortality among European countries. In that sense, it is essential to underline the importance of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, approved by the Commission earlier this year. One of the key aspects of this ambitious plan is a modern approach to dealing with cancer, by investing in technological development, research and innovation at service of patient-centred prevention and care. Investing in research will be instrumental in delivering improved health outcomes for cancer patients.
As the ongoing pandemic highlighted, collaboration and strong research networks were essential to the innovation required to respond to this healthcare crisis and deliver new and repurposed medicines to tackle this disease. Such a reinforced cooperation will enable Europe to maintain high quality cancer care and research even during an adverse event as this one.
Finally, Europe should invest in increased cooperation between Member States and EU Institutions in order to remain a crucial actor in the international setting. A strong, robust and resilient European Union will naturally be able to forge increasingly relevant partnerships with third countries and provide assistance through effective channels. In fact, as Europe rebuilds itself after the effects of the pandemic, our collective focus must be on ensuring access to COVID-19 vaccination across the globe.
Let there be no doubt: an increase in European solidarity and cooperation in the field of health will result in stronger, more resilient health systems – which are and will continue to be one of the essential features of the European Social Model, in which we believe and are tasked with protecting.