Luca Jahier: A Europe focused on health must become key recovery priority

This is no longer the time for sterile debates on shared, complementary or exclusive powers

Luca Jahier.

We have one of the most advanced public infrastructure in the world, but nobody was prepared for a public health crisis of these proportions. We have totally neglected to invest in the medical sector in the same systematic way so that we would be up to taking on a pandemic, says Luca Jahier, the EESC President, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Jahier, recently you called for a fully-fledged Health Union that must become key priority for the EU. Can this be realised, provided that healthcare is a Member State prerogative and responsibility?

I believe that what we are going through is hammering home one very clear message: the need to save our Europe, our companies, our social systems, our health systems, by resolutely adopting a Care Strategy.

A Europe focused on health must become the key priority of recovery. The EU must give itself the resources and tools, and also the necessary rules and frameworks, to be able to deal with similar pandemic crises, to prevent them, to act with systemic timing and coordination in crises that are themselves systemic and, in reality, highly interconnected and pervasive as never before. This is no longer the time for sterile debates on shared, complementary or exclusive powers, including within the various Member States.

One may rightly argue that health is a Member State prerogative and responsibility. Art. 168 TFEU clearly states that the Member States have competence for public health. However, there are 10 other articles in the Treaties that confer certain, and often essential, aspects of public health to the Union. This ranges from the free movement of medical personnel and patients, to the authorisation, marketing and advertising of medicines, to the standards of medical applications (masks, tests, ventilators), including protection of the consumer. It also covers research, fundamental to treatments and vaccines, and the intellectual property that covers them.

Union action is essential to complement national policies towards improving public health and in the fight against the major health scourges, as well as health information and education, monitoring, early warning of and combating serious cross-border threats to health.

A Europe focused on health will be the first real step towards making Europe and its citizens and communities safe, drawing a key lesson from this crisis: protecting one another to protect ourselves, starting with measures to manage the post-peak period, which will certainly not be brief.

How can it be explained that Europe, having the most advanced public health infrastructure in the world, was so severely affected by the pandemic?

We have one of the most advanced public infrastructure in the world, but nobody was prepared for a public health crisis of these proportions. We have totally neglected to invest in the medical sector in the same systematic way so that we would be up to taking on a pandemic. Besides, the delays in investing in the health sector have further impacted us, to say nothing of the enormous cuts made in many countries in these recent years of crisis and recession - in Italy, for example, there are 8.5 intensive care places for every 100 inhabitants, compared with 29.2 in Germany.

Delving deeper, we discover that the disparities between the various national systems in the EU, in an area that we see as crucial to all our lives, have risen dramatically in recent years, belying the rhetoric of progressive convergence. And this is to say nothing of research and the supply systems and control of production of essential supplies. All this was unacceptable before. Now, after Covid-19, it must be more so. I would attempt to say that is the case not only for the EU, but for the global community.

This is why I welcome the Commission's initiative to launch a pledge for global collaboration for the accelerated development, production and equitable global access to new coronavirus essential health technologies. More than €7.5bn has been pledged to help develop a coronavirus vaccine and to fund research into the diagnosis and treatment of the disease, and that is a first step.

In your view, is the EU responding enough strong to the health and socioeconomic crisis so far?

Despite some initial hesitation, in a matter of weeks, the EU has done more than in the four years following the 2008 crisis, with interventions already decided that are estimated at over €3tn. The EU has already established strong firewalls to protect European workers, businesses and governments and to face the many urgencies of the pandemic crisis that before it would have been unimaginable.

It has changed its economic rules, activated the general escape clause of the Stability and Growth Pact, extended flexibility on State aid rules, provided the largest injection of liquidity by the ECB, already €870bn, activated many others actions on the existing EU budgets. It has agreed to work on a Recovery Plan for Europe and endorsed a €540bn safety net package that includes the SURE programme, which can be considered one of the most important social achievements in the European integration process.

As I mentioned, a few days ago, President von der Leyen launched a pledging “marathon” to raise at least €7.5bn ($8.2bn) for research into a possible vaccine and treatments for the coronavirus and to build unprecedented global cooperation between scientists and regulators, industry and governments, international organisations, foundations and healthcare professionals. Another strong sign of crucial European leadership.

Would it be possible to exit the crisis together as a Union, given the 'frugal' approach of the well-off countries, or each state has to seek its own lifebelt?

After the last European Council meeting on 23 April, and as the Dutch PM Mark Rutte has said, tensions are not there any longer. The political commitment is now there and must remain strong. We all depend on one another and we must make sure that we emerge with a stronger sense of European unity, a stronger sense of community. We do need an European response. It is enough to look at how interdependent and interconnected national industries are. No EU country can deal with this alone, no one is self-sufficient.

The EESC last month urged for a full recovery plan, of the scale of the Marshall Plan or the New Deal. What should be its main pillars, and where would the money come from?

The economies of the EU countries will shrink by 7.4% this year as the coronavirus crisis is set to cause the worst recession in the bloc's history. So the response has to be up to the task of rebooting the economy, but at the same time allow it to depart from business as usual as we need a new model of development, considering climate change and rising inequalities.

The Recovery Fund must lead to measures that would allow the EU to reform, strengthen its economy with a digital single market and embark on the path of sustainable development. Europeans need to see further tangible results and they need them fast so that they can compete better in a changing world.

I am well aware that on this specific issue there is still a lot of work to be done, including on the use of possible innovative financial instruments in line with the Treaties and the concept of EU solidarity, such as jointly guaranteed recovery bonds.

The last mile is often the most difficult one, but we need to walk it now in order to ensure a more resilient and sustainable Europe, fighting inequalities and protecting the most vulnerable, workers and enterprises, promoting biodiversity and the transition to a low-carbon and circular economy, protecting the single market and a new digital strategy.

The EU can adequately respond only if it has the means to do so. We urge the Commission to deliver the new proposal for an increased MFF. Such a revised MFF should target better Europe's recovery from the crisis and the achievement of the European Green Deal objectives, focusing on five main priorities: health, workers, enterprises, cohesion and external action.

It should also feature an enhanced system of EU own resources that could be used in a more flexible way, including for the gradual buildup of a real function for macroeconomic stabilisation, to increase the resilience of the EU, and in particular the euro area, against future economic shocks.

I propose that a new MFF should increase the original proposal of at least 25%, mainly based on own resources mechanisms. I also call for the immediate launch of a new strong EFSI programme, which should leverage at least €1tn in the next two years for the needed investment in the EU strategic priorities.

In fact, I expect Member States to swiftly agree on the new MFF, so as to start the spending programmes without delay and so that this EU budget is used as a guarantee to issue recovery bonds, for the quantity that will be needed, not involving the mutualisation of existing debt and oriented to future investment on agreed priorities.

This last crucial mile is more than needed now, as we have all clearly learnt a major lesson from this Covid-19 pandemic: We must protect each other to protect ourselves.

The European Council already agreed in principal on establishing an EU Recovery Fund, but one of the main issues yet to be resolved is how it will provide the help - through credits or grants. What is your opinion on this?

We need any instrument possible to make sure that this fund has the resources it needs. We need a plan that will be open to both loans and financing grants. First, we need grants that would be immediately available in very quick order. I believe that Council shouldn't drop the idea prior to the entry of force of the incoming MFF, but that there will be something that will serve as a guarantee for a transition for these funds to be available immediately.

We can in fact make the Recovery Fund operational immediately, using the procedure used for the Juncker Plan: a temporary guarantee from the European Investment Bank, which would eventually be replaced by that of the budget, leveraging on own resources. It is a hypothesis. It would be the way to meet the expectations of European governments for quick actions in order to have resources available in a short time.

Last but not least, we need to find a way to cut red tape. The money from the Recovery Fund must reach the real economy immediately, without bureaucracy. Because businesses are experiencing a dramatic need for liquidity. European enterprises can't be blocked because of bureaucracy.

Close-up

Luca Jahier is the President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). He has been a member of the Committee since 2002. Within the EESC, he has worked extensively on the European Union's social and cohesion policies, as well as on international matters. In October 2011, he was elected president of Group III (Diversity Europe Group) of the EESC, and was re-elected in January 2013 and in October 2015. In this capacity, he has been a member of the EESC's Bureau.

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