France wants to promote Europe's strategic independence. The path she is taking seems questionable at times.

UM – 01/2022

Healthy sovereignty through paracetamol?

French President Emmanuel Macron presented his government's EU Council Presidency agenda at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on January 19, which once again emphasised Europe's sovereignty. This will also affect the healthcare sector as well as the energy and digital technology sectors. Beyond his political speech, yet very specifically, this will also involve a factory in Roussillon that will produce 10,000 tons of paracetamol per year starting in 2023. The French government is promoting this relocation as a milestone. Production of the well-known antipyretic painkiller on French soil is expected to become a kind of starting signal for the resilience of Europe's healthcare systems. This will be helped by billions in government subsidies awarded through so-called "Important Projects of Common European Interest", or in short: IPCEIs.

IPCEIs stand for technological progress

IPCEIs are an instrument for enabling financial subsidies to be awarded by suspending otherwise applicable restrictions on government subsidies. For example, this happens in the case of important projects of common European interest that are expected to make an important contribution to competitiveness, employment and growth throughout the European economy. The aim is to develop new, innovative technologies in which several member states participate and from which the entire EU will benefit. The funding decision is made by the participating countries themselves; the EC only decides on whether the states may make the funds available.

WHO: Paracetamol is essential

An IPCEI must have ambitious goals in terms of innovation and research (see here). It's all about technological advancement. How paracetamol, which is by no means new, fits in here requires explanation. Other IPCEI requirements, such as fulfilling a common strategic objective, are easier to justify. Strengthening resilience in the health sector is a high priority objective following the pandemic experience. Strengthening Europe's independence from world markets in strategic active ingredients is something that many member states are committed to. Whether acetaminophen should be considered to be a strategic active ingredient still has to be determined. After all, it has been listed as an essential medicine by the WHO since 1977.   

Resilience or an industrial subsidy?

Some member states, including Germany, are said to sympathise with the French idea. On January 18, the Council of Health Ministers also addressed the issue - still without results. This matter not only has a catch in terms of content, it could also have a price. The single market is the heart of the EU. Competition needs clear rules that apply equally to everyone. Understandably, countries such as Spain or the Netherlands warn against the danger of undermining functioning markets through inappropriate use of the IPCEI instrument. France's move raises the question of whether the argument for Europe's autonomy serves as a pretext that ultimately hides a state industrial subsidy. An answer must be given here as well.