Schinas lays groundwork for European way of health
If Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had known a pandemic was coming, she might have fought harder to keep Margaritis Schinas’ original title as commissioner for “protecting” the European way of life.
As the vice president overseeing health policy in the age of coronavirus, protecting lives is now his job.
His Commission portfolio — renamed after an outcry over the word protecting — is vice president for promoting the European way of life. The role, which includes migration and asylum policy as well as bolstering diversity and skills, has also taken Schinas back to his roots in health policy. One of his first Brussels posts was as the head of cabinet for former Cypriot Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, from 2004 to 2007.
“At the time, the main focus of EU health policy was basically not to have one,” Schinas said.
This is why Schinas said he welcomes ideas like the “Europe de la Santé,” articulated by French President Emmanuel Macron and supported by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“It took years, as well as the pandemic, to reach the conclusion that a ‘Europe of Health’ is something that we need,” he told POLITICO in an interview Tuesday. “It’s more than a slogan.”
As former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief spokesman, Schinas’ slogan-selling skills were never in doubt. But turning slogans into policy action amid a pandemic is another order of responsibility.
For Schinas, who in the past had fretted about being typecast as the Greek commissioner responsible for migration and asylum policy, the outbreak has put unexpected urgency and unprecedented attention on the other major part of his job: health policy. Not that he can just choose to focus on only one part of his portfolio.
“I don’t have the privilege of choice,” he said. But when it comes to the health portfolio: “We are living the first moments of a major policy shift.”
This shift includes a standalone €9.4 billion EU4Health program; a cancer plan and pharmaceutical strategy anticipated for later this year; and a strategy for advance-purchasing vaccines that was unveiled Wednesday.
The coronavirus crisis has ushered in what Schinas says will be a “new beginning” for the EU’s health policy.
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The new initiatives could also usher in new problems, as national capitals push back on what some say is Commission overreach on health. Frustrated by the slow and bureaucratic joint procurement processes, some countries have also begun taking action on their own.
A case in point: Four big EU countries — Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy — formed their own alliance to buy vaccines for the bloc, and have signed a deal with AstraZeneca.
But Schinas insists the Commission is striking the right balance. The new vaccine strategy, in which the Commission plans to advance purchase vaccines, will allow the Commission to pool risk and resources “to act collectively as a European Union.”
If they’re proven safe and effective, EU countries will get early access to these vaccines, as will the rest of the world (although there are few details on how this will happen).
“We want to avoid a situation like at the beginning of the crisis, with a lack of personal protective equipment,” he said. This time, Brussels is making sure “that vaccines are available for everyone on an equitable basis.”
Moreover, the Commission’s strategy for advance purchasing vaccines — compared to the four-country alliance — is the best approach “to ensure we get everything we need,” he said.
“I am confident that at the end of the day, everyone will be covered,” Schinas added.
He also pushed back against the concern that the Commission’s proposals — like the standalone EU4health plan that’s meant to help bolster countries’ health systems — are violating the EU’s treaties.
“Clearly, what we have been doing with a new health program is within the framework of the existing treaties,” he said.
That said, the comments by Macron and Merkel suggest that “nothing is off the table,” he said. “Governments, member states, society will have to discuss whether the EU’s health policy will require change.”
When asked about the controversy surrounding his original job title of “protecting the European way of life,” Schinas laughed.
As he sees it, too many people in the Brussels bubble spent too much time discussing the label rather than the content.
“This is a new job,” he said. “It brings together a Europe that protects, but also that Europe that empowers.”
When it comes to health policy, Schinas vows he can do both.
“Health policy can be a shield,” he said. “But it can also be an opportunity for our businesses, for pharmaceutical industry, for our governments, for health care professionals and citizens.”
David Herszenhorn contributed reporting.