Junker’s Commission: bad news for global health?

The May 2014 election of a parliament peppered with representatives from the far right triggered fears of growing MEP reluctance in partaking in EU level development initiatives. On 10 September, President-elect & Spitzenkandidat Jean-Claude Juncker from the centre right EPP made his choice for the 2014-2019 College of Commissioners public. In light of the recent Commissioners-designate Hearings, Global Health Advocates analyses how these political changes may impact on the EU’s support for global health.

In an international context where sustainable development goals are being discussed for the post-2015 period, universal access to healthcare needs to remain at the top of the agenda in order to sustain current achievements and prevent further unnecessary deaths. The current Ebola outbreak and its unprecedented tragic death toll are teaching decision-makers an important lesson, as we suffer the consequences of our lack of investment in robust health systems.

Commissioner-designate Neven Mimica from the newest EU member state Croatia has been assigned the development portfolio. A half-empty room of MEPs who seemingly lacked passion and enthusiasm for the anti-poverty agenda, questioned the Commissioner-designate on global health, climate change, post-2015 and what not. All in all, Mimica acted like a typical diplomat answering the very polite questions from the audience- nothing too exciting or provocative. On Ebola, Mimica conceded that the EU had been slow in reacting to the crisis and would learn from this experience to become more cohesive. On a positive note, he reaffirmed his commitment to universal access to healthcare and that 20% of EU development aid would be allocated to basic social services, including health and education. It was clear that Mimica was extremely well prepared, but looking at his CV, one can wonder whether he really has those issues close to his heart? Development and global health NGOs will make sure to share our concerns and expertise with him in the coming five years.

The experience made with Commissioner-designate for Health – Vytenis Andriukaitis – was entirely different. A surgeon by profession, he delivered a passionate speech on the importance of patients’ rights, equity and universal access to care. However, he deliberately gave vague answers to numerous questions including those on sexual reproductive health and transgender rights. We all waited impatiently to hear a question on Juncker’s proposal to move the units dealing with medicines, medical devices, and health technology from DG SANCO to DG Enterprise. However, Andriukatis successfully dodged the question. In the past weeks campaigners and public health activists have denounced the move as a clear attempt to boost competitiveness and profit of the industry. Worried that patients’ rights and public health may no longer be the primary objective of EU health policies, civil society and numerous MEPs have been mobilising to reverse the transfer of competences. However, Andriukaitis has no power in this regard and has merely acted in line with his boss’ decision.

The hearing of the Commissioner-designate for Research – Carlos Moedas – was by far the most worrying debate. He was rightfully challenged by MEPs due to his strong background in industry rather than in research, science and innovation, which led to three hours of questioning without a single mention of global health research. Poverty-related and neglected diseases still affect a billion people worldwide. New, better, more affordable and accessible tools to prevent, diagnose and treat these diseases are badly needed if we are to reach the Millennium Development Goals and save millions of lives. Sadly, this did not seem to be one of the priorities of the Commissioner-designate nor the MEPs present during the hearing.

Juncker and his team are clearly set on advancing the EU’s economic growth above all other priorities. We hope that international momentum fused with Commissioners’ commitment will allow for future sustainable advances in global health in the post-2015 era. No doubt, Andriukaitis is a promising candidate and Mimica has the potential to grow into his role. However, it is ultimately the EP that will decide whether these Commissioners-designate will be our future interlocutors on 22 October 2014!