Von der Leyen (La Presse)

Von der Leyen’s European Health Union

As a lesson from the coronavirus crisis, the EU Commission is calling for a European pandemic plan for future cases. In addition, the Commission is seeking to expand the competencies of the EU health authorities European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

What Does von der Leyen Want?

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants the European Union to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and improve its capacity to respond. It is one of the primary reasons she is inclined to form a European health union. Recent vaccine deals with the pharmaceutical companies BioNTech and Pfizer are strong signals of the beginning of this union.

“We must and will deal with cross-border health threats differently,” von der Leyen said Wednesday in Brussels in her announcement of the creation of a “European health union.”

Paradigm Shift for the EU

What was considered largely inconceivable until March 2020 could now mark a paradigm shift. So far, social and health policy legislation has mainly been a matter of the EU’s individual member states. With the pandemic and the weaknesses within the EU it exposed, however, von der Leyen is determined to make changes.

To that end she has already heralded the start of real action with the deal with vaccine manufacturers BioNTech and Pfizer. The EU Commission approved these agreements on Wednesday in a deal for 300 million vaccine doses. Once fully approved, these will be distributed across the EU, and in accordance with population size. Wealthier countries will not have an advantage over economically challenged ones.

How Will EU Member States React to the Vaccine Rollout?

It remains to be seen whether all the member states will regard von der Leyen’s plan favorably. After all her plan means nothing more than the fact that the EU Commission wants to have a say in European national vaccination strategies in the future.

In recent months, the EU vaccination strategy developed by the Commission stipulated that no EU country should buy vaccines unilaterally. Even before the epidemic, it was a rule that no EU country could approve vaccines on its own but only with the approval of the EMA. The EMA does still has to examine the vaccine proposed by BioNTech and Pfizer and approve it.

Moreover, and in line with von der Leyen’s vision, there are already calls for additional funds and influence to be made available for the EMA, as well as for the ECDC.

A New, Stronger Mandate

According to the Commission’s ideas, both EU authorities should receive a new, stronger mandate. The ECDC could then successfully monitor an epidemic across Europe and in real-time. It would also have the authority to send a newly established EU health task force to the centers of an epidemic.

In the future, the EMA would be entitled to monitor the supply of critical drugs across the EU to no longer face supply bottlenecks like that which occurred at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the costs would amount to €600 million over the next seven years, which seems relatively modest in view of the EU’s total investment volume during the pandemic.

Will von der Leyen’s Vision Come True?

Nevertheless, whether von der Leyen’s vision can be implemented or whether national strategies will prevail.

What is already striking, however, is that the EU appears to be united once again. Such a unified scenario as this was non-existent – especially at the beginning of the pandemic – made many within the EU doubt that the solidarity that the EU so likes to pretend exists actually shows up in real crises.

However, while it is quite possible that the EU Commission has found a successful strategy with its vaccine deal, and one must applaud von der Leyen for the willingness to create better preparedness for future pandemics, the willingness of all member states to agree to even more power for Brussels is far from a certainty. In fact, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte already commented on the project by stating that he could not see “any value” in the plan – and he’s not likely to be the last.