The coronavirus pandemic has put European health systems under a pressure we have never seen before. Doctors, nurses and medical staff in our cities and regions have been working tirelessly to save lives in extremely difficult conditions and have become the visibly exhausted 'heroes' of our fight against the invisible.
United in health?
The crisis has on the one hand shown many remarkable initiatives in the area of health care (including care for patients coming from regions of different EU Member States), confirming thereby the very essence of our common European project, that is to say solidarity. On the other hand, it revealed enormous gaps in addressing the public health emergency, namely a lack of proper coordination and of robust EU instruments to respond to cross-border threats and national solo runs for the benefit of the few.
If health is our most valuable asset, we need to guarantee that everybody in Europe has access to high-quality health services. Making Europe's health systems fit for the challenges of the future by enforcing cooperation between Member States and local and regional authorities is therefore more than ever key.
Rheinland-Pfalz hilft den französischen Freunden in dieser Notsituation: Die #RLP-Krankenhäuser der Grenzregion übernehmen Intensivpatienten nach ihren Möglichkeiten. #coronavirus #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/vAqozpuI2g
— Soziales_RLP (@Soziales_RLP) March 22, 2020
Health is wealth and vice versa
The new EU for Health programme (presented by the European Commission in May) is a first important response to this challenge. It aims at "making our health systems effective, accessible, sustainable and resilient" and has two main focuses: addressing health security and crisis preparedness, and improving the health of the EU's population on the long run (by strengthening the resilience of health systems, promoting innovation in the health sector, as well as improving access to and quality of healthcare).
However, only two months later, the ambitious European Commission's proposal - which called for some EUR 9.4 billion of funding for the programme - was mercilessly watered-down by Heads of State and Government, who proposed to reduce the budget to just EUR 1,64 billion. Is the health of European citizens not worth the prize?
The #COVID19 crisis shows the urgency to create a European Health Union. If not now, then when?
"Men and women of the EU need to have guarantee of an access to health services".
Watch the call from our president @IratxeGarper pic.twitter.com/SbhBZuWCEp
— S&D Group (@TheProgressives) May 12, 2020
— EUREGHA (@EUREGHA) July 24, 2020
A healthy future for everyone
From a Socialist point of view, securing high-quality healthcare for all has always been a fundamental goal. Health plays a strong role in delivering a truly Social Europe and is essential when it comes to the fair and sustainable development of our societies. Spending on health is not seen as a cost, but rather as an investment for sustainable growth.
In order to provide quality healthcare services for our citizens, the future health programme needs to invest in strong public healthcare services, better-trained health professionals and affordable access for all to health care, thereby delivering on what we have promised to citizens: making the European Pillar of Social Rights a reality on the ground.
"Health is a fundamental right and a service of general interest, and cannot be treated as a market service." This key message is also echoed in the European Committee of the Region's opinion on the EU for Health programme, led by PES Group member Nathalie Sarrabezolles (President of the Finistère Departmental Council/France), adopted at this week's plenary session.
"Health is an issue of general interest and it cannot be treated as a commodity.
The #COVID19 crisis has shown us that we need to reinforce health services, we need a new European health programme."
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) October 12, 2020
Cities and regions, healthier together
Since the very beginning of the pandemic, cities and regions have been on the front line when fighting the COVID 19 pandemic by adopting health measures such as the purchase of medical equipment and responding to the emergency.
"By cutting the new EU4Health programme by 82 %, Members States bitterly failed to grasp the full extent of the crisis. Guaranteeing high-quality healthcare for all is the best expression of solidarity and an essential part of strengthening the cohesion in our Union. We can and must do better to reinforce our health systems. Regions and cities will continue working every day to achieve this goal, but need considerable support from the EU level", stresses Sarrabezolles, joining major PES political leaders.
In many EU countries, regional authorities have competences in the field of public health and are responsible for the coordination of local health and social care actors. They play an essential role in health prevention and support, and should - as Sarrabezolles rightly underlines it - be closely involved in preparing for future crises and in improving the overall functioning and performance of the EU health systems.
At the same time, the future health programme needs to be better coordinated with other important investment tools for cities and regions: the European Regional and Development Fund when it comes to health infrastructure, the Horizon Europe programme regarding health research, and the European Social Fund+ for the training of healthcare professionals and for giving vulnerable groups access to healthcare.
Better cooperation at all levels of government is another key aspect. Cities and regions are already leading by example, particularly in cross-border regions: The Interreg Euregio Meuse-Rhine programme, for instance, made EUR 4.2 million available for cross-border projects fostering crisis response capacities in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak in the sectors of health, public safety and security services, public administrative management and social services.
As viruses and severe diseases know no border, therefore neither should our health efforts. The rapporteur consequently suggests that the Programme includes so-called 'health-corridors' between the border regions, guaranteeing patents and health professionals to continue moving across borders to guarantee access to and provision of care, as well as to allocate funding to health-related cross-border cooperation.
The coming months promise an intense debate on the topic with the vote of the report in the Environment committee of the European Parliament on 12 October. Progressive cities and regions stand ready to fight for a strong budget for health that allows for access to quality health care for all, and to make health the true embodiment of Europe's solidarity.