We need to talk about the importance of EU health action - and why European citizens need to know its potential

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09 November 2017

Last week the European Public Health Conference in Stockholm hosted a workshop on the 'EU's contribution to its citizens' health. Academics and experts gave a multidisciplinary assessment of EU health action, and why it is crucial to increase public awareness of it.

Here are our five main takeaways from the Conference:

1.There is a dramatic lack of awareness of the EU's role on health and public health.

2.EU health action is related to trust in its institutions: citizens care about health and want the EU to do more.

3.The EU's role in health and public health is paramount and ever-present in citizens' lives - much more than most people think.

4.The European health policy community can and should do more to understand and communicate the EU's contribution the health of its citizens.

5.Reforming the EU is a chance to make health a higher priority and regain public trust.

The EU is striving to restore trust in its citizens as nationalist appetites for borders and authoritarian control rise across Europe. In this context, a debate on the EU's role for health and its relation with public trust in European institutions was timely as well as spot-on the urgency of shaping the future of the EU. Joining a debate organised by Parma University, Cambre analysed the legal perspective of the matter, to frame the debate and outline underlying tension between social and economic objectives of the EU.

Opening the workshop, Professor Martin McKee remarked how widespread ignorance of the EU's role in public health, combined with political recklessness, is fuelling misguided Eurosceptic pulls and curbing the EU's potential to improve well-being for all. The panel compellingly outlined that the EU's role in public health - albeit with a limited legal mandate - is only second to its untapped potential.

This is not enough, however. EU institutions and the wider public health community - for instance the EU Public Health Association - have to do more on health to mainstream its priorities across policies and laws. It is important to make sure that prioritising health goes hand in hand with research, measurement and awareness raising about the EU's crucial contribution to public health.

Public health is indeed already more ubiquitous in EU laws and policies than most people would know, as explained by Doctor Matthias Wismar of the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies. EU institutions are increasingly coordinated and coherent across countless actions that affect - directly or indirectly - the health of European citizens. EU law is already a somewhat constitutional framework that increasingly embeds health in all policies, fosters right to health and other connected human rights via the Court of Justice of the EU, and expands health standards, including with its external action.

Nevertheless, health in EU law is still subaltern to internal market rules, and EU institutions and leaders do not rank public health high enough in their agendas for the future. As Doctor David Stuckler argued in its contribution, a subordination of health to other EU policies - especially macroeconomic adjustments following the Eurocrisis - fueled discontent in Europe and a blame game against the EU.

These EU's shortcomings and potential offer an opportunity. Groups like the No-TTIP movement or the Brexit campaign showed clearly that health is a key area to claim the EU is not doing enough and having more of it is a bad idea - and Eurobarometer statistics confirm that EU citizens do care about health and want the EU to do more. This is a chance for the European public health community to make the case for more EU health action.

It is also a sign for EU institutions, leaders and the wider stakeholder community of the need to reform Europe to be a supranational organisation, not only an economic animal; to improve its action for values and rights like health for citizens, rather than the Eurozone and health services for consumers; ultimately, to truly mainstream health in all policies and harness its role to foster legitimacy as a key global player for health and public health.

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