It was big news in the Brussels bubble this week when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she is not against Treaty changes, “if these make sense”. She referred specifically to health competencies for the EU and even mentioned majority decisions on tax policies. Her remarks were in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe and launch of the digital platform as part of this process. People can use the platform to contribute ideas and suggestions and comment on developments and policies, with health one of the main topics.
The pandemic has shown that the EU will need to take more coordinated and decisive action in response to cross-border health threats. For that to happen Treaty changes might be required as public health policies are national competencies. We are not against strengthening the role of the European Commission in such cases and currently there are proposals to do this as part of the EU Health Union. Beyond that, those arguing for a shift in competencies should be clearer. Do they mean changes to counter the lopsided powers of the Commission that pushes for more competition and liberalisation? Realising the right to health and care for all, building universal public health care and reducing health inequalities between men and women, between economic classes, and between countries are the kinds of objectives that EPSU would endorse. We would not support them if framed in the language of the internal market.
Similarly, we know that more public funding is required for our health and social care systems. The work of health and social care staff needs to better valued. Higher pay is one element, and so are better working conditions to cope with high levels of stress and burn-out. Many workers do not feel respected and there are reports from several countries of large numbers of workers thinking about leaving the profession, so worsening further the current staff shortages.
It is crucial to create the budgetary space to do this and this will mean reforms to the EU’s economic policies and no return to the coordinated austerity policies of the past. It is now widely recognised that these policies have contributed to the underfunding and understaffing, making it harder to deal with the pandemic. This is a message we brought to the consultation on the G20 Global Health Summit organised by the Commission and the Italian Presidency. The G20 foresee the adoption of principles and even a Treaty to deal with pandemics. One of the principles must be that the interests of workers are recognised and unions consulted. Preventing a pandemic means preparedness and occupational safety and health issues are central to this, from the workplace to sector to national level and beyond. Risk assessments, personal protective equipment and recognising the occupational diseases are just some of the key elements.
In EPSU’s daily work we are constantly reminded that Europe is so much bigger than the EU. This week we wrote to the European Commission calling on it to take more responsibility for delivering vaccines to the Western Balkans. Colleagues in Bosnia-Herzegovina wrote to me about how many frontline public services workers are infected, and hardly any vaccines are available. The same situation applies in countries like Armenia and Georgia. Vaccine production can be stepped up if there is a temporary waiver on the intellectual property rights for the vaccines. Unions, civil society organisations and many governments are united in this demand. Nobel prize winners are appealing to US President Joe Biden to support it. And if this happens, the EU’s leadership will be tarnished, because the rest of the world will follow. The European Commission and EU governments really need to reflect where the priority is – with big pharma or with all of us?
Saying goodbye to EPSU vice-president Mikhail Kuzmenko
I use this opportunity to say thank you to Mikhail Kuzmenko, the President of the Russian Health Workers’ Trade Union, on the occasion of his retirement. Mikhail has been EPSU vice-president since our Congress in 2009 and I recall many good conversations with him over the years, on many different subjects from the 1697 visit of Czar Peter the Great to the Netherlands and what it meant, to the Dutch words in the Russian language and diversity in Russia. I appreciated his down-to-earth and strategic approach to issues. Under his leadership, the union managed to negotiate many important agreements, develop its youth work to a high level and increase its membership by recruiting many medical and nursing students.
Mikhail was a supporter of the work of EPSU and PSI of which he was also vice-president, underlining the importance of union cooperation and having a voice as unions there where it mattered. His successor is Anatoliy Domnikov who was elected at the union’s congress on 21 April and who was formerly the president of the union’s Moscow region. I have sent Anatoliy my congratulations and we look forward to working with him and the union in what are very challenging times for health workers as for all public service workers.
And in all of this our work to build and strengthen our unions continues with examples this week of unions organising in private health and care companies in Central and Eastern Europe. They are symbolic of the work of so many who are giving workers a voice to influence the decisions that impact them and to change the balance of power. Success to all.