An interview with István Ujhelyi, Member of the European Parliament, on why the COVID-19 pandemic supported the initiation of a “European Health Union” and which further steps are necessary.
Interview: Dietmar Schobel
Did the COVID-19 pandemic support the foundation of a “European Health Union”?
István Ujhelyi: It may seem a bit morbid to say, yet a pandemic with a tragically high death toll can also have positive effects: I’m thinking here of increased attention and support for research and development that leads to new discoveries and cures, reinforced European solidarity or, in our case, the creation of the European Health Union (EHU). When, as a Hungarian MEP, I first put a concept on the table, in discussion with experts from the Hungarian health sector, which later became part of and one of the starting points for the strategic paper prepared by the S&D Group of the EP and which also laid the foundations for the EHU, we were still far from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the human immune system, including in the European Union, at points that were previously thought to be strong and impenetrable. Yes, it can be safely said that COVID-19 has clearly helped and fuelled the creation, acceptance and ever wider implementation of the EHU.
What has happened since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that a European Health Union should be established in 2020?
István Ujhelyi: The President of the European Commission has described the implementation of the EHU as a rather grandiose and pioneering initiative and she did not exaggerate at all. A great deal of important progress has already been made in the past two years: primarily, of course, focusing on epidemic management and emergency preparedness. We have strengthened the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), but we have also created new institutions that previously did not exist, such as the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), which is responsible for developing and implementing countermeasures before and during health emergencies. It will help us to improve health security coordination between EU Member States and make countermeasures more effective, from asset development to stockpiling to equitable distribution. But similarly, we should also highlight the new medicines strategy under the EHU, which has modernised the regulatory framework and supports the competitiveness of the European pharmaceutical industry, or the European cancer plan, which is particularly important for me personally, and which can improve the effectiveness of our fight against the disease across Europe: in terms of prevention, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, or even in improving the quality of life of cancer patients and survivors.
A European citizen who needs treatment in an Eastern European hospital must not have less chance of recovery or even survival than their Western counterpart.ISTVÁN UJHELYI, MEMBER OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
What are the different concepts for such a “European Health Union”?
István Ujhelyi: The European Health Union is a rather broad and wide concept, in which many ideas and objectives can coexist. What of these can ultimately be fully implemented is a more complicated question. For me, for example, one of the most important cornerstones of the EHU must be to reduce the gross disparities between the quality and patient safety indicators of healthcare systems. So that a European citizen who needs treatment in an Eastern European hospital, for example, does not have less chance of recovery or even survival than their Western counterpart. Everyone deserves an adequate level and quality of healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown this perfectly: our common ship can easily get a leak and if it is not dealt with, it will indeed capsize and sink. We are in a common ship and every part of that ship must be of the same quality and equally strong to weather any storm. But this means that we need minimum quality standards that must be met in the public healthcare systems of all Member States. I think that this should also be among the points to be implemented in the European Health Union.
What is a “true” European Health Union?
István Ujhelyi: As I indicated in the previous question, for me a “true” EHU is a system without uncertainties, holes, white spots and quality differences, which pose a risk to the community as a whole. One that can provide all European citizens with the necessary conditions for decent and quality public healthcare. I am not saying that tomorrow a Bulgarian public hospital will have to provide the same level of care as a Scandinavian private hospital, but it is unacceptable to me that, for example, in Hungary, someone is three times more likely to get a hospital-acquired, in extreme cases, even fatal infection than in Germany. The right to physical and mental health is a fundamental human right. If our European Community is based on true solidarity, we cannot tolerate such disparities in our healthcare. And this is not only in the interest of the Eastern European ends needing to catch up, but also in the interest of the more developed and safer Western Member States. For example, in another epidemic situation.
A healthier and more active society is happier and more productive.ISTVÁN UJHELYI, MEMBER OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT
What would be the advantages of such a “true” European Health Union?
István Ujhelyi: If the system of minimum quality standards that I am calling for can be implemented as widely as possible as part of a European Health Union, the European Community will be able to deal much more effectively and efficiently with pandemic situations such as COVID-19. If there is not only better communication and coordination between our healthcare systems, but also better exchange thanks to a balance of quality, then in the long term the quality of life of European citizens can be improved and thus their lifespan can be substantially increased. And I believe I do not need to explain much further that a healthier and more active society is happier and more productive, which will further enhance living standards, economic productivity and well-being in the literal sense of the word.
What action needs to be taken to realise the vision of a “true” European Health Union?
István Ujhelyi: The full establishment of the minimum quality standards I have outlined and proposed as part of the EHU does not yet seem feasible. Health is currently an exclusive national competence and, as such, it is up to national governments to decide on the regulations and practices they adopt for the sector. It is already known that there are Scandinavian countries that are afraid of this common European system of rules, but, so as not to go too far, the current Hungarian government is also opposed to it because it feels – quite wrongly – that it is an intrusion into national sovereignty. And in order to be able to create this system, the governments of the Member States – as stated in the resolutions adopted by the European Parliament – must review their own health systems and identify the white spots and areas for improvement. Only on the basis of all these can we develop and establish a set of requirements that can ensure adequate patient safety and quality care and working conditions. In other words, the first step must be to mobilise national governments. I am confident that we will achieve this goal, even if at a slower pace than the other programme points already implemented by the EHU. There is still a lot to be done in this respect, but for me this is one of the most important goals for the EHU in the near future. And I have been brought up to be quite persistent and determined, so it will certainly not rest on me.
István Ujhelyi was born in 1975. He is a politician from the Hungarian Socialist Party and was a Member of Parliament in the National Assembly of Hungary between 2002 and 2014. He has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2014.
Read more about better cooperation in the health sector between the EU Member States in the “Healthy Europe” article “On track for a ‘true’ European Health Union?”.