What did we learn from the BSE crisis? Remember how the European Commission was criticised for letting market concerns take precedence over public health protection? With the ongoing reshuffling of the Commission portfolios by President-elect Juncker, some major units for EU public health protection, such as ‘Health Technology and Cosmetics’, ‘Medicinal Products – Authorisations, European Medicines Agency’, and ‘Medical Products – Quality, Safety and Efficacy’, move from DG SANCO (Health) to DG Enterprise and Industry. The changes to the portfolios come without further explanation and after the deadline for the Parliament to ask written questions has passed. At the same time, the message sent to EU citizens seems to be that in the EU, public health is a means for economic interests rather than an end in and of itself.

By Anniek de Ruijter

In the years following the BSE-crisis increasingly public health portfolios were moved to the health commissioner and became the responsibility of DG SANCO. Important and major aspects of the European internal market such as the safety for pharmaceuticals, medical products and health technology were all moved to DG SANCO. With respect to pharmaceuticals, an important reason for putting DG SANCO in charge was that DG Enterprise failed to manage the 2009 H1N1 crisis with respect to the coordination and availability of vaccines. Thus it was recognized that public health specialists needed to work in tandem in such extremely difficult and multifaceted crises. This mirrors the situation in Member States, where one may find it difficult to find ministerial departments on economic and financial affairs in charge of the approval and safety of medicinal products.

Unsurprisingly, the recent move to return the major public health units back into the hands of industry Commissioner has been welcomed by industry representatives across the EU, whereas the public health lobby has signalled deep disapproval, particularly given their lack of access to DG industry. The move is also particularly salient as major reforms of medical devices legislation are on its way. A new DG in charge of negotiations could make a difference. For example, in the case of the negations surrounding the clinical trials directive DG enterprise resisted more transparency of clinical trials in order to protect industry interests, exemplifying the differences in the nature of policy agendas among the respective Commission services.

The reshuffling of public health portfolios towards the industry sends a clear and concerning message to EU citizens, namely that in the EU public health is a means for increasing economic growth, rather than an objective in itself. In the words of Commission president Santer in response to the BSE crisis: ‘Did the Commission put the market before public health? With the benefit of what we know today, the attitude adopted at the time is open to criticism.’ Now, we no longer have the benefit of hiding behind future unknowns as we did in the BSE crisis. Perhaps it is time to learn from the past, namely that we should not let public health be captured by industry interest, but safeguard it as an interest that is protected and promoted by the EU for its own sake.

Anniek de Ruijter is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance. Her personal page can be accessed here.

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