08.01.2019 | Brussels Background European Elections – Health Care’s time to shine?

A Eurobarometer report showed that the European citizens want the European Union to do more on health. A demand that seems impossible to fulfil as the Member States have a history of strongly securing this department for themselves. But times are changing and some threats such as vaccination hesitancy cannot be handled only by national health care systems. Could health care be the new superstar topic which will get people to the polling stations in May 2019?

Health has always been a tricky topic in the European Union and was sometimes merely treated as a nice to have. In recent history the EU only took action when the single market was touched by health related issues. There were bigger things to talk about: The financial crisis, the internal market, the 4th industrial revolution.  There are even rumours floating around the “Brussels bubble” saying that after the elections in 2019 the days of DG SANTE might come to an end. Because who would need a DG whose responsibilities had slowly shifted to other DGs over the years anyway? And frankly, citizens never really complained because they probably too had bigger fish to fry.

But a shift of mind seemed to have happened. As health care issues have gotten more and more media attention over the past few years, people seem to have developed an interest in what the European Union can do for them. When asked in what areas citizens wish the EU to deliver more, a stunning number of 70% of the voters said they want more EU action when it comes to their health care. A group of NGOs and industry associations even rooted for a Vice President for health to give more importance to the topic. Also members of the European Parliament who will run again in the 2019 elections stressed the need for the EU to give more priorities to initiatives relating to health care.

The problem that remains though is the tension between the European level and the national governments. Every time, the EU tries to push forward initiatives most Member States fear an infringement to their national sovereignty and fear a loss of control. This might be completely logical in cases where national health competences such as the reimbursement process of drugs issues are touched but it does not seem right in overarching areas. In cases like antimicrobial resistances or the growing vaccination hesitancy, national governments simply cannot act autonomously. But to this date national governments have not overcome their old ways of thinking. Considering the vaccination crisis: The Commission proposal suggested aligning vaccination schedules by 2020. This suggestion however was completely watered down by the final Health Council recommendation in December 2018.

Health is one of the topics the EU could really prove their power to change things. More flexibility, a less stubborn approach on subsidiarity and more cooperation would show the citizens that the EU is not what people think it is: The Ivory tower where things like the form of cucumbers is decided upon. To show people what the EU has done for them so far is of the essence. And especially in the tricky field of health, there is no need to hide. From more patient safety that stems from the falsified medicines directive and the medical device regulation, an innovation friendly environment to the cross border health care directive – the EU was able to achieve all this when everybody was on the same page. This is why Europe’s citizens need to understand that it is important who is representing them in the European Parliament. This is what gets people to the polls.