The pandemic has led to an increased focus on improving all aspects of public health across Europe.
Despite optimistic declarations that the pandemic would cease to affect our daily lives after a few months, Europe remains in a quasi-lockdown state. The majority of member states have a strictly imposed lockdown, while the remainder have only just begun to tiptoe towards normality. It is undeniable that, even a year later, the Covid-19 pandemic remains an issue.
It may seem that the world has ground to a halt; however, the pandemic has provoked reanalysis of the way we live. The onset of Covid-19 has not been without a silver lining. The virus has acted as a catalyst for change, emphasising the merit of an EU-level approach to health policy. In the past twelve months, the implementation of long-lasting changes has begun. These changes will continue to positively affect healthcare throughout Europe long after the current crisis has subsided.
The virus has acted as a catalyst for change, emphasising the merit of an EU-level approach to health policy.
Historically, public health has often been broached as a low-priority issue better dealt with by countries themselves. In accordance with the Lisbon Treaty, the primary responsibility for health protection and healthcare systems has always lied with member states. And until recently, health has been mostly absent from harmonised European approaches.
The current crisis emphasised the institutional gaps in healthcare across Europe and drew attention to the lack of consistency across the continent. For the first time, disparities between member states’ healthcare systems threatened lives across the Union, with insufficient healthcare in one country having the ability to place significant stress on other European countries. The sheer magnitude of this health crisis granted indisputable relevance to a union-based approach to health.
However, health policy cannot and should not boil down to a singular focus on Covid-19. It has merely acted as a wake-up call. With the threat of ‘commonplace’ diseases such as cancer and obesity having become intertwined with cross-border threats, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has come to publicly question the delegated competences for health.
Ms. von der Leyen announced the Commission’s renewed ambition to scale up its role in public health. Since the emergence of the global pandemic, the European Commission has taken its first steps towards building a European Health Union.
While the Health Union is still in the initial stages of establishment, in November 2020, the Commission already put forth three proposed Regulations that would make up part of the package of legislation to be incorporated under the Health Union.
These regulations seem to imply an inherent focus in pandemic response. While this is true to an extent, the broader scope of the European Health Union must be acknowledged. In addition to these proposals, the Commission has already committed itself to the formulation of two new European strategies that address other essential components of health policy. Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, which aims to address every stage of the disease, and the
Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe, which endeavours to promote affordable and accessible medicines, are both considered key initiatives of the Health Union.
However, the European Health Union’s true power lies in its symbolic nature instead of the proposals that have already been drafted. The building of a European Health Union, made possible by the threat to public health established in the last 12 months, embodies an innate possibility to further reflect upon the scope of EU health policy.
The building of the European Health Union finally pays due regard to a policy area which has been deliberately curtailed in an EU context. It supports the notion that the EU be granted further competence in the field of public health. It provides a much-needed framework for a coordinated response to health. And perhaps most importantly, it paves the way for additional health policy.
The building of a European Health Union, made possible by the threat to public health established in the last 12 months, embodies an innate possibility to further reflect upon the scope of EU health policy.
The suffering that the pandemic has caused is undeniable. Whether it be financially, mentally, or health-wise. Moving forward, however, it is important to take advantage of the opportunity presented by Covid-19. With EU action, we can ensure that the European Union is equipped with a sufficient framework to address any current and future health issues.
The pandemic has turned the European Union into a global health leader, a claim that the EU can only maintain if it can create a robust framework for an entire spectrum of health needs through its new Health Union. Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, promoted this sentiment when acknowledging that this “will forever be remembered as the year the worst global health crisis in modern times broke out, but [she] would also like it to be remembered as the year where [they] listened and lived up to citizens’ demands for more Europe in the areas of public health”.