Today, Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the European Union speech. The President of the Commission reiterated the EU’s unwavering support to Ukraine and stood firmly to affirm the resistance of the EU to Russia’s war of aggression. Tackling the question of energy prices and gas dependency, Ursula von der Leyen then drew the picture of a strong European Union that “will prevail” and will succeed in its economic recovery, invest further in education, fight corruption and elevate its values, all in the middle of a better, greener future. But among all of these priorities, the lights of the Union blacked out on global health.
The Covid-19 pandemic, still endangering countless lives around the world, was barely mentioned – or only to remind us that it took the EU “only weeks” to find “lasting solutions” to it. Needless to say, we beg to disagree. We would like to show the same amount of confidence as the President, who quoted the late Queen Elizabeth II: “we will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us” with regards to Covid-19… but there is still a long way to go.
The newly emerged monkeypox outbreaks and the resurgence of polio in the West and in the world were not addressed. Likewise, the President did not make time in her speech to talk about the role and importance of DG HERA, the EU Health Union, or the revision of the pharmaceutical legislation – and its potential delay, and its consequences. It is getting redundant to have to recall once again how dire the health situation is. Many countries, within and outside Europe, have not fully recovered from the crisis. Health systems are broken and still breaking, and we are very far off track in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good health and well-being for all. The world is still facing deep inequalities in terms of access to health care and rights. Unequal and unfair access to covid-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments is only one example of it. It is true that a new EU Global Health Strategy is on the horizon for this winter, but how will it be taken seriously if it is not even publicly acknowledged and promoted by the President herself?
We welcome the inclusion of mental health in the speech and echo the fact that “appropriate, accessible and affordable support can make all the difference”. But this statement is true beyond mental health, as it applies to all health services as well as medicines.
To be fair, the blame does not fall solely on Ursula von der Leyen: in the hours of debate following her speech, none of the Members of the European Parliament that took the floor brought up the topics of health, medicines, nor the pandemic. We can only wonder whether the lessons learned from Covid-19 have been, in fact, learned at all.
The EU’s commitment to global health must not slide off the agenda that easily, and we call on all EU institutions to take it seriously. Crises are interlinked, and neither war nor climate change should be siloed from health and access to health services and primary healthcare. The fact that the 2022 SOTEU does not address major European and world health issues is a huge negative signal and undermines the EU’s leadership in global health: we can only hope that the speech does not reflect the actual ambitions of the EU in this matter and that health will be a solid priority for the Commission and the Member States in the year to come.