Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
emphasise health in debates at the European Committee of the Regions.
National governments should agree to a larger package of financial support for health systems in the European Union, the European Committee of the Regions said on 14 October. The call is contained in a set of three recommendations in which the EU's regions and cities set out ways of filling gaps in local health-care systems revealed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The recommendations – which address weaknesses in prevention, treatment, and emergency care – were adopted on 14 October, two days after the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) presented the European Commission's president, Ursula von der Leyen, with evidence of the impact of the pandemic in its Annual Regional and Local Barometer. The Barometer highlighted how the crisis has added to existing inequalities, including in the health sector. President von der Leyen told the EU's assembly for local and regional politicians that "The European funds will enable investments in new hospitals, better equipment and stronger healthcare systems – not only in the big cities, but also in more remote regions" and that regional and local administrations should be "in the driving seat".
The Committee was also addressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On 13 October, she told the 329 governors, mayors and councillors in the CoR that the willingness of some regions to care for patients from regions from other countries should be a "guiding light for future challenges". Chancellor Merkel, who said she was "watching with great concern the renewed increase in infection numbers in almost every part of Europe", was speaking in her capacity as leader of the country that holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
In its opinion on the package of support for health-care systems already announced by the European Commission, the EU4Health programme, the European Committee of the Regions criticised national governments for slashing the proposed budget. They stressed that health services, which are managed at the local and regional level in many EU Member States, need investment and innovation in order to reduce health inequalities and cope with an ageing population. The EU's Member States this summer cut the European Commission's proposal of EUR 9.4 billion for 2021-27 to EUR 1.7 billion. The final size will be determined in negotiations with the European Parliament.
The CoR's rapporteur, Nathalie Sarrabezolles (FR/PES), president of the Finistère Departmental Council, said: "By cutting the new EU4Health programme by 82%, Member States bitterly failed to grasp the full extent of the crisis. Guaranteeing high-quality healthcare for all is the best expression of solidarity and an essential part of strengthening the cohesion in our Union. We can and must do better to reinforce our health systems. Even though regions and cities will continue to work every day to achieve this goal, they nevertheless need considerable support from the EU level."
A second opinion focuses on the features necessary in a European health-emergency mechanism that could be activated in future pandemics. It emphasises the need for the EU to develop, buy, transport and distribute testing supplies and protective gear imported from abroad or produced within the EU. It also calls specifically for the development, for instance, of a common EU vaccination card and a virtual European register providing information on vaccine stocks.
The rapporteur, Birgitta Sacrédeus (SE/EPP) of Dalarna Regional Council, said: "The pandemic clearly demonstrates the importance of qualified and well-trained staff and well-funded, well-equipped and robust healthcare systems with the ability to quickly adapt to a new healthcare and public-health situation. The pandemic also shows the very large role that local and regional authorities play in crisis situations such as this."
The third opinion – drafted by Karsten Uno Petersen (DK/PES) of South Denmark Regional Council on the subject of cross-border health care – seeks to ease the transfer of patients for care in other countries, as occurred during the first wave of the pandemic when, for instance, patients from the Grand Est and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté regions of France were treated in Saarland, Germany.
Mr Petersen said: "The COVID-19 pandemic proved how important close health-care cooperation across borders can be for Europeans. Seeing patients being treated across borders was the best representation of what solidarity really means. Let us build on what we have learned from this emergency to improve our cross-border healthcare systems and provide people living in border regions with simplified procedures and patient safety, as well as clear information, both for them and for healthcare workers."
The opinion fits into a broader effort by the European Committee of the Regions to ensure that the EU's recovery from the pandemic helps to build resilient communities, helps the development of local economies, and promot efforts to deepen European democracy.
According to an opinion poll commissioned by the European Committee of the Regions, 67% of Europeans would like local and regional authorities to have more influence on decisions taken at EU level. Of these, 45% mentioned health as an area where regions and cities should be given more say.
The poll was conducted by Kantar in the first half of September, and the results were presented at the CoR's plenary session on 12-14 October. The poll also found that – both in general and in terms of responses to the pandemic – Europeans trust local and regional governments more than they trust national governments or the EU. An absolute majority – 52% – trust their regional and local authorities, while 47% trust the EU and 43% trust their national government.
Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions and governor of Central Macedonia in Greece, said: "The level of trust that citizens have in local and regional leaders has helped to contain the spread of the coronavirus. This trust will also be critical in the recovery phase. We urge national leaders and EU institutions to work with and support regional and local councils addressing the mighty problems created by the virus."
Findings of the Annual Regional and Local Barometer:
Annual Regional and Local Barometer – main findings
Annual Regional and Local Barometer – full report
Annual Regional and Local Barometer – opinion poll by Kantar (country-specific results also available)
Annual Regional and Local Barometer – the health impact (the story, in data)
Annual Regional and Local Barometer – the regional economic impact (the story, in data)
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