Debating Europe’s Future – No turning back

Remember leaded petrol, cars without seat belts? Mad cow disease, Thalidomide? Over the last 60 years, what the European Union has achieved for our health is astonishing. We often take for granted the laws which protect us. When we do notice them, we grumble “health and safety” and “red tape”, rather than acknowledge our improved health and well-being.

We learned the hard way after disasters and scandals to anticipate risks and take preventative action, now enshrined in the EU Treaties’ “precautionary principle”, saving countless lives.

In his five Future of Europe scenarios, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker floats the idea of “Doing Less” on public health as well as on social and regional policy. While aspects of the other scenarios are already reality, the idea of doing even less on social issues and cohesion is completely at odds with the EU’s real strengths.

Only scenario five “Doing much more together” is new. Yet, almost two-thirds of EU citizens would like more EU engagement in health and social security. Further, it’s Europe’s people – their skills, education, diversity, ideas – that make us competitive in the world.

So why not combine the positive elements of each scenario to reflect a Europe playing to these strengths and building on what has been already achieved (securing fundamental rights, improving equality, enabling educational exchanges and scientific development, providing regional support) by working together? There is already great scope for the EU to follow such a path, with the imminent publication of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Social Platform has been clear in highlighting that the Pillar can do great things to underpin both economic stability and social cohesion by promoting investment in health promotion, disease prevention and health system infrastructure. When the proposals for the Pillar are published next month, we’ll see if these opportunities have been seized, but national governments must not be tempted to unleash a new race to the bottom that everyone will lose.

The EU should never tell governments how to spend their money nor micro-manage their health services. What it can and should do is help tackle problems national governments cannot take on alone – challenges like a ‘post-antibiotic reality’ because of our failure to act on drug-resistant infections.

Doing less is not without risk. It will cost lives. We must not accept fewer rights, less protection or poorer health. Turning back is unthinkable.

By Nina Renshaw, Secretary General of Social Platform member European Public Health Alliance