Does the EU benefit our health?

Guest blog from Marina Yannakoudakis MEP 

At this year’s Conservative Party Conference I was invited to speak at 2020health’s Fringe Meeting “Does the EU benefit our Health?” My answer, in short, was a cautious “no”. Aspects of cross-border public health are an EU competence, but we must be wary of EU interference in our national health services. All too often when Brussels introduces legislation related to public health, it turns into the usual EU power grab.

This month, in addition to party conference, I was voting in Strasbourg on a number of EU proposals related to the health dossier. First up was the EU Tobacco Directive where Conservative MEPs scored a victory for common sense by rejecting proposals to regulate electronic cigarettes as medical devices. We need to rein in the European Union’s first instinct which is to legislate. An amendment put forward by Conservative MEPs would control electronic cigarettes in the same way cigarettes are controlled; by including health warnings, not allowing the sale of the products to the under 18s and by ensuring a list of ingredients is submitted to the competent authorities. I believe that this is a way of protecting people’s health and ultimately saving lives. Electronic cigarettes are a way of weaning people off smoking rather than a gateway to cigarettes. Over-regulating products such as e-cigarettes would have made it more difficult, not easier, for people to quit.

While electronic cigarettes will not be regulated as medical devices, everything from scalpels to breast implants comes under the EU’s Medical Devices Directive. This was being revised following the scandals of PIP breast implants and metal-on-metal hip replacements. Again, I do not believe that more legislation is going to prevent acts of criminal frauds like the PIP scam. Unfortunately it gave MEPs a chance to increase the legislative burdens on producers of medical devices, as well as the authorities which use them such as our NHS, without paying sufficient attention to business, especially SMEs. I worked to block some of the more outlandish proposals which would have stifled innovation in the medical devices sector and to prevent more power being passed to the EU in the form of giving the European Medicines Agency control over the licensing of certain devices. Working with MEPs from the centre and centre-right we got a set of legislative proposals which improve on the original draft, but I still believe that the new legislation increases the administrative load on companies without the countervailing improvement in patient safety.

We also looked at patient safety in Strasbourg this month. An Italian MEP put forward some recommendations for improvements in patient safety, such as encouraging the implementation of national checklists, promoting measures intended to minimise harm to patients receiving healthcare, better EU-wide monitoring and surveillance of healthcare-associated infections, and improving education and training of healthcare workers, particularly with regard to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. I support these recommendations, but take a different when it comes to the independence of Member States’ healthcare systems. One of elements of the proposals which caused me concern were plans to introduce a new EU-wide collective redress mechanism for patients affected by healthcare-associated infections. I believe that compensation mechanisms should be left to member states, taking into account the variety of different healthcare systems across the union.

Like most Conservative MEPs, I believe that EU countries sharing best practice is the best way to ensure good co-operation in the field of health. If the European Commission or Parliament oversteps the mark by trying to interfere in the exclusive competence which Member States enjoy over their national healthcare systems, the EU is truly crossing the Rubicon. MEPs must also carefully balance citizens’ health with the interests of business and only introduce legislation which is both necessary and proportionate. Only then can we say that the EU benefits our health.

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