Thursday, June 20, 2024

EU election candidates go head to head in debate on future of Europe’s health

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Two EU lawmakers hoping to retain their seats in June’s European elections pledged to level up access to quality healthcare across Europe in an electoral debate presented by MSD.


Tomislav Sokol of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) faced Tilly Metz of the Greens in a head-to-head debate that focused on providing universal EU health coverage, alleviating stress on healthcare systems and attracting healthcare innovation and investment to Europe

It came as the bloc gears up towards the start of a new five-year political mandate, during which it must grapple with soaring rates of non-communicable diseases, an alarming shortage in healthcare workers, a rapidly ageing population and an increasing dependence on foreign countries for healthcare supplies.

Both MEPs, who are leading figures in EU health policy, backed dedicating more financial resources to healthcare to ensure more equal health coverage across regions and communities, but outlined different visions for how that should be achieved.

De-risking medical supply chains

Sokol urged the bloc to curb the worrying backward trend in European health innovation, as medical R&D increasingly moves to the US and Asia.

“We are lagging behind. China is picking up pace. We’ve been lagging behind the US for the last 20 or 30 years,” he explained. “And the problem is that we are stifling our (pharmaceutical) industries, so we are not becoming more competitive.”

“We have to create frameworks to attract companies to go and build their factories in Europe, which means we need incentives,” he added.

Sokol, whose centre-right EPP group is on track to remain the parliament’s biggest faction, said that the ongoing overhaul of the EU’s pharmaceutical legislation – commonly known as the pharma package – ensures the right balance of protecting industry interests while ensuring more affordable and accessible medicines for Europeans.

The parliament’s position on the reform, adopted last Thursday, proposes regulatory data protection (RDP) periods of seven and a half years – extended by a further 12 months if a therapy addresses an unmet medical need – and an extra two years of market exclusivity, in a bid to incentivise the development of new drugs in Europe.

But Cyril Schiever, Senior Vice-President for MSD in Europe, said during the debate that the parliament’s incentives were insufficient and “not sending the right signal to the industry.”

Metz disagreed with this notion, saying that the RDP proposal was fair. She called for transparency in the use of public investments, and to “rebalance” the powers in the pharmaceutical industry: “It is really the question of if we want a Europe that puts the patient, the citizen at the centre (…) or less social justice with competition at the centre,” she said.

Cardiovascular disease, mental health in focus

Sokol called for a bespoke EU strategy to beat cardiovascular disease, with concrete goals and deadlines to tackle Europe’s number one killer.

Both candidates supported more prevention measures to tackle the lifestyle choices that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including a potential roadmap to raise a smoke-free generation in Europe, following the lead of countries such as France and Spain.

Metz went further and said that a more global approach is needed to tackle deadly levels of air pollution, estimated to cause more than 300,000 premature deaths each year in the EU alone.

“We cannot, on the one hand, advocate prevention, and then – when it comes to putting stronger rules on tobacco or when it comes to reducing air pollution – say, no, we put the market first.”

“It’s time for brave policies. But it’s time, most of all, for coherent policies,” she added.

Metz also called for taking out the taboo of talking about mental health issues: “We live in a situation of multi-crisis and people have multi-fears. We need to give them the opportunity and places to express them (…) there should be no taboo,” she said, naming the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis as some of the anxieties facing the new generation of Europeans.

Sokol also supported tackling the mental health “stigma” and greater investment in new research into specialised treatments. 

The rise of Euroscepticism

Also under debate was the rise of Euroscepticism, as polls predict a surge of support for Brussels-sceptic and far-right parties in June, which could strain the grand coalition of centrist parties.


Sokol assured that a tilt to the right shouldn’t derail key health policies such as the high-stakes pharma package, but foresees difficulty in piecing together majority support for some files in the Council, where 27 capitals are represented.

But Metz also pointed to Argentina’s decline in social support as a signal of what happens when the far-right gains control.

“So we really need to imagine what it would mean to give more power to a more protectionist, less pro-European, approach. Is that really what we want?” she questioned.

Joining the debate, Anca Toma, Executive Director at the European Patients’​ Forum called on election candidates to pledge to work with patients and define “what matters to them”. Recent polling by Ipsos for Euronews suggests that improving the quality of healthcare is a key priority for Europeans across the bloc, months before they head to the polls.

“If it doesn’t work for patients, you’re wasting your time,” Toma told the candidates.


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