Call for more EU competencies in health policy

AG – 05/2022

How does Europe become more capable of action and which issues should the EU deal with? EU citizens dealt with these questions for a year as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. On May 9 – Europe Day – the final report was handed over to the Council of the European Union, the European Commission and the European Parliament in a formal ceremony.

Recommended are more than 320 measures under nine thematic blocks, ranging from climate change, health and social affairs, and migration to the EU's role in the world.

Greater alignment in the area of social policy

Many citizens are calling for an EU framework for minimum wages, stronger joint efforts on gender equity, and adequate social housing across Europe. In addition, EU citizens want each Member State to introduce minimum pensions that take into account the standard of living, poverty line and purchasing power in the respective country. In the demands of the Conference on Future of Europe it is clear that the national competences of the Member States should be left unchanged. However, there is a desire for greater alignment of labour and social regulations. The European project should become more social, more unified and more tangible. The Member States certainly see this somewhat more critically.

Health: More competence demanded for Europe

However, the situation is different when it comes to citizens' demands in the area of health: In the final report, they explicitly advocate more power in health policy at the European level. Currently, the competence to design the healthcare system lies with the Member States (Art. 168 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). This means that the organisation of health policy is regulated nationally, with the EU playing a complementary, coordinating and supporting role. Art. 168 TFEU gives EU only limited fields of action where it can act, for example in combating widespread diseases or in cooperating to coordinate health care in regions close to borders. If the demand for greater powers at the European level were to be implemented, this would entail an amendment of the EU treaties.

Conference participants also call for reducing dependence on third countries for medical devices and pharmaceuticals. Other topics on the wish list include food labelling, reduction of antibiotic resistance and common minimum standards for healthcare in all EU countries.

Abolition of the unanimity principle

In the final report, citizens also called for the strengthening of the European Parliament. It should be even more involved in the legislative processes. While the European Parliament can bring forth initiatives, it remains dependent on the goodwill of the European Commission to move an issue forward by publishing a legislative proposal. In addition, the principle of unanimity in the Council is to be abolished with regard to foreign, social, fiscal or budgetary policy and sanctions for violations of the rule of law. The complete demands of the Conference on the Future of Europe can be found here.

This is how it continues

More competencies in health policy and the abolition of the unanimity principle would entail changes to the EU treaties, as well as the holding of a convention.

An amendment of the EU treaties is currently unlikely and has been ruled out by the Commission. In a published non-paper, 13 EU Member States reminded that all decisions are taken within the defined distribution of competences and in compliance with subsidiarity and proportionality. Treaty change was never the goal, according to the signatory Member States.

In principle, the recommendations of the conference, as well as the current situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war, provide sufficient reason to rethink political cooperation in the European Union. Whether it should also be restructured remains to be seen.

The European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament are now examining how and which of the proposals can be pursued. Initial results are expected in the autumn of 2022. Then, an event will be held to receive the feedback from the politicians. In between, there will be initial rounds of bilateral negotiations at the level of the European institutions to define positions.