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Nina Renshaw is Secretary General of the European Public Health Alliance.
In the 60 years of the evolution of the European Union, what’s been achieved for our health is astonishing. Remember leaded petrol? The stench of smoke filled pubs? Mad cow disease? Thalidomide? Cars without seatbelts? Flammable kids’ clothes or toys that became choking hazards? We take for granted that the law moves forward with the evidence, to keep us well protected. We barely notice that the rules are there, but when we do, we grumble about “health and safety” and red tape. We never give anyone credit for the difference made to our health and well-being.
Looking back, the rules only used to change after a health scandal like BSE or a disaster like the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise off Zeebrugge exactly thirty years ago, when almost 200 lives were lost. The hard lesson learned from such disasters was the need to look ahead at the risks and take action ahead of time. This is enshrined in the EU Treaties as the “precautionary principle” enabling a rapid response in the face of possible danger to human, animal or plant health, or to protect the environment. We will never know how many lives have been saved as a result.
One of President Juncker’s 5 scenarios for The Future of Europe, presented at the beginning of March, as we get over Brexit and move on, floats the idea of ‘Doing less’ by 2025 on public health as well as on social policy and regional development. The scenarios were presented to the national governments and the European Parliament with an air of “There. You deal with it.”
But hold on: four of the scenarios are already reality: Today’s business-as-usual is the internal market über alles, a multi-speed Europe in action for the Eurozone, the Financial Transaction Tax or even patent protections, and let’s face it, for some years already the Commission has been doing ever less in social, health and development policies.