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EU Health Budget cuts spark cries of dismay… but it’s not all doom and gloom

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EU Health Budget cuts spark cries of dismay… but it’s not all doom and gloom

When the European Commission proposed its new EU4Health programme back in May, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it was widely seen as a “game changer” that would transform the EU health competence and bring health care to the forefront on the EU debate. After the four-day EU Council Summit that ended this Monday, it seems that little of that ambition remains. Under the terms of the deal, the proposed health budget was slashed to just €1.7bn from €9.4bn in the original proposal. With an effective budget of approximately €250m per year, it is unlikely that the new health budget will be sufficient to cover all the aspirational goals the Commission has set for itself on health and allow the Commission to deliver on the promises made in the context of the EU4Health programme.

The mood among health stakeholders and EU officials championing health is dour in the wake of the summit. In a press conference, Commission President Von der Leyen considered the cuts made in the area of health regrettable, and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said she was “disappointed by the health outcome” and “regrets that the Commission’s ambitious proposal to strengthen our crisis preparedness and resilience has not been maintained.” Commission officials, including those from DG Sante, described the outcome as “painful”.  MEPs, meanwhile, have come out strongly against the “incomprehensible” cuts.

Renew Europe’s Nicolae Ștefănuță, the rapporteur on the Parliament’s Budget Committee’s opinion on the programme, called it a “lost opportunity” and said that “people expect action in this field.” It is so unfortunate that the EU4Health will suffer a major cut, stated EPP’s Cristian Silviu Bușoi, Romanian MEP and lead rapporteur on the EU4Health proposal in the ENVI Committee. Portuguese S&D MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho meanwhile recalled that ‘the Treaties give the Parliament the right to reject the budget’, a clear sign that the Parliament is readying itself for battle. At least in theory MEPs could reject the budget compromise.

However, given that the proposal is the result of one of the longest and arguably one of the most fraught EU negotiations of the last two decades, there does not seem to be much room to manoeuvre. Because of the precarious consensus among EU leaders, there is both very little room to make any substantial changes to the deal and a very real risk of an institutional crisis should Parliament reject it. Time is also a factor. The deal still needs to be approved by national parliaments, and the Commission still needs to make a lot of preparations in order to ensure the budget is ready for the start of the next cycle in January 2021. As such, despite their bluster, it seems unlikely for the Parliament to win any major concessions.

What does this mean for EU health priorities? In the short term, at least, it means we have to make do with less. Since the announcement of EU4Health, stakeholders across the healthcare space clamoured to carve out a slice of the new budget for their causes. This struggle will continue but now with a significantly smaller pie. This means that EU health stakeholders will need to fight that much harder to get their voice heard.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The budget may be much smaller now than the one proposed back in May, but, even if diminished, is still the largest sum of money to go towards health in the EU’s history – more than triple than what was proposed back in 2018. It is undeniable that health care is, and will remain, at the forefront of the EU debate. That, in itself inconceivable just a few years ago, is nothing short of a victory. So, while those fighting for a stronger EU health competence have lost a battle, they have not lost the war. The next battle will take place in the upcoming, high-level Conference on the Future of Europe, where a true health competence for the EU could become a reality.

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