The coronavirus has exposed the gaps in the EU’s health powersand now the EU wants to plug the holes.
The bloc’s infectious disease agency couldn’t even give effective advicethe to panicked capitals; there was no centralized way to monitor shortages of medicines and medical devices; and countries have had different policies on basic measures such as when and where to wear face masks.
Now, with no vaccine against political dysfunction, the European Commission on Tuesday began pushing for Plan B, urging EU member countries to grant more legal power to Brussels and create a “Health Union” to manage future crises.
According to a draft seen by POLITICO, the Commission wants to create EU-wide pandemic preparedness plans, align testing methods with EU laboratories, give the European Medicines Agency (EMA) more power to mitigate drug shortages, and allow the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to actually give recommendations to countries.
All of this will be rolled into a package branded the “European Health Union” and drawn up in three legislative proposals — a first step by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to wrest some power from member countries and prevent future chaos.
But don’t expect EU leaders to give up too much so easily.
Health powers have long been a closely guarded competence of EU member countries, with national leaders eager to show they have the responsibility — and ability — to take care of their constituents. Even the rise of cross-border health threats — and now two waves of the coronavirus — have only slightly lessened their grip.
Most notably, countries gave the Commission power to negotiate vaccine deals on their behalf. The Commission on Wednesday will proudly claim this has been a success, announcing it has completed a deal with BioNTech and Pfizer for up to 300 million doses of their coronavirus vaccine. This is the fourth completed deal for the Commission, and two more should follow soon. EU diplomats have said the Commission is also talking to a seventh producer, Novavax.
In an effort to enhance coordination, EU leaders agreed at the end of October to hold regular virtual videoconferences.
But Brussels has had to drag countries along. The Commission has struggled to get countries to send through their vaccination plans, and is still waiting for countries to finally transfer €750 million for the Commission to secure more vaccine deals.
Plenty of countries will be ready to fight transferring power to Brussels. At the end of October, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte walked into a European Council Summit saying that coordination on testing and quarantine requirements is important, but when it comes to taking measures, “that’s really a national affair.”
“In fighting the epidemiological and virological crisis, Europe has no additional value,” Rutte said.
Other Commission efforts to play a bigger role in health have been less of a success.
EU countries originally slashed the proposed 2021-2027 budget for the Commission’s health program from €9.4 billion to just €1.7 billion, but Tuesday agreed to increase this total to slightly more than €5 billion. German MEP Peter Liese, the European People’s Party’s health spokesperson in Parliament, told reporters that even if the health program had €9.4 billion “it won’t be enough to do everything” the Commission wants to do at the European level.
Even after months of meetings, countries couldn’t agree to harmonize quarantine or testing guidelines, but did approve the ECDC to create maps to show the scale of infectionsin each EU country. But even here, von der Leyen has had to push countries to share their data with the agency.
Hungary has decided to pursue some of its own vaccine deals, saying that it wants to purchase Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and one of the vaccines developed in China.
The Commission, though, reckons its pitch for a bigger say in health is a change that citizens want.
“European citizens expect the EU to lead and coordinate the response to the crisis,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said at the end of October at a Commission webinar. “EU citizens have been very clear that they expected more Europe, more presence of Europe to deal with health threats. They wanted more solidarity between member states, better common tools to tackle COVID-19 and of course a larger EU budget to support these efforts.”
“We are determined to live up to these expectations,” Kyriakides added.
The Commission proposal, though, is a tacit admission that repeating the words “cooperation, coordination and solidarity” can only do so much. National capitals must be willing to step up, do more, and cede some control to Brussels.
Big changes won’t be possible without a treaty change — an issue the Commission is getting ready to raise at the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Until then, the Commission is reminding countries that everything it is proposing is within the existing treaties.
“[The European Health Union] is not about treaties and competences,” Kyriakides said in October. “There will come a time when we will have the opportunity, I’m sure, to debate these as well.”
David Herszenhorn and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.
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