Roma, 30 giu. – Good afternoon and welcome to Askanews’ EU Verified series.
In this second series we sit down with members of the European Parliament to discuss in more detail the priorities of the European Parliament’s Environment and Health Committee in 2022, the lessons learned from the pandemic and the implementation of the Beating Cancer Plan.
I am Lorenzo Peiroleri, editor at Askanews and my guest today is Croatian Member of the European Parliament’s European People’s Party, Tomislav Sokol. Mr Sokol has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2019 and recently joined the Special Committee on the Covid-19 pandemic. He was also part of the BECA Committee which worked on the European Parliament’s Beating Cancer Report, adopted last February.
Welcome Mr Sokol and thank you for joining us today.
Q. Let’s start our interview by recapping a little on the Beating Cancer Plan. You were a substitute member of the BECA committee and participated actively in the discussion. Are you satisfied with the plan that was adopted in plenary in February?
A. Yes. So first we had the plan, the Beating Cancer Plan, which was adopted previously by the Commission. And this was the report which defines the position of the European Parliament in relation to the Plan. I think that the final outcome, the final compromise – because these things are always based on compromise – is very good. So, we emphasized things which we think that should be improved in Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, but also acknowledged things which have been done very good. I think that one of the main things that I want to emphasize about Europe’s Beating Cancer plan is that it’s really focused on prevention and early detection, which is a good thing. But we believe that also some strengthening is needed in the area of actual healthcare treatment and the care for healthcare for cancer survivors. This is why we emphasize the need to use EU budget more to battle differences which exist in terms of the quality and standards of healthcare provision across the EU. So, this is something that needs to be addressed much more by the European Union than it has been so far. We also emphasize the need to make it easier for patients to access cross-border healthcare. So, if they cannot get optimal healthcare in their own country that they can use healthcare in other Member States. Currently these possibilities exist, but they are very bureaucratic. A lot of administrative hurdles and obstacles need to be passed and it is something that we want to simplify, make it easier for patients. And also, we emphasize the need for joint procurement of medicines, which is important if you want to reduce the prices and make it a level playing field for all the Member States so that you don’t have a situation where some Member States have to pay more for expensive medicines than the others. So, we want equity, affordability and accessibility. We want a level playing field. And to do that, we believe that the EU should organise common joint procurement of expensive medicines for cancer in a similar way, like with vaccines. And also, we emphasize the right to be forgotten. So that means that those people who survived cancer after a certain period of time, like five or ten years, are not discriminated against when they want to access financial services, they don’t have to pay higher premiums for insurance, they don’t have problems getting loans and things like that. So, the legislation which protects these people already exists in some Member States. We want to make it common to all European Union Member States. So, we want common EU legislation which would prohibit discrimination of people who survive cancer.
Q. Now that the Plan is to be implemented throughout Europe, what do you think are the key challenges and is there a specific area among those you just mentioned that should be prioritized?
A. So, we need to put the pressure on Member States, because a lot of this implementation will depend on the Member States, especially in terms of financing. So, we have to make sure that EU funding, which goes to the Member States like cohesion policy, which is managed by the Member States, really gets to those priorities which we emphasized. We also want the European Commission to strengthen its position in some of the areas like, for instance, joint procurement. So, we need the initiative from the Commission to do this. Also, on the right to be forgotten and on the protection of cancer survivors, we also need concrete legislative proposals from the Commission which will be the basis for the creation of EU legislation for this, because Parliament does not have the right of legislative initiative. So, EU laws – directives and regulations – can only be proposed by the Commission. And so, this is very important and we also want the European Commission now that they finished the revision of the cross-border health care directive, we also expect to have a new proposal on that. We already have one new proposal. In the meantime, that is that is the regulation in European health data space, which is very important because it will make it possible to share health data both for primary use for patients, but also for secondary use so that this data can be used for clinical trials, for making health care planning, for making analysis of the health care systems. So, in this kind of a systematic fashion, so it is important that this regulation is adopted as soon as possible. And if it starts to be implemented. We expect to start working in the Parliament in the coming period on this regulation. And I think this is also something which is very important. So, we have to work both on the EU level, on the level of the EU institutions, also with concrete new legislative proposals, but also to put pressure on the member states to be really committed to implementation of all of these measures.
Q. There was a lot of debate ahead of the plenary vote about the harmfulness of alcohol and tobacco. Do you believe that the European Parliament managed to find a good compromise on these topics? And we know that you previously stated that the concept of harm reduction could help in fighting cancer. Were you happy about how the report refers to this?
A. Yes, I think harm reduction is a very important concept. Because of the question of the perspective. So, if you look only at harm reduction like e-cigarettes, they are harmful. They are more harmful than if you do not use anything at all. But they are much less harmful than if you use real cigarettes and as an alternative to cigarettes this is definitely something which is much better, with much less severe consequences than actual smoking. So as an alternative, these kind of alternatives to smoking are very important. Yes, we had a lot of discussions. I think the heart of discussions within the committee and in the Parliament on this topic. The compromise could have been better, but I think in the end it was much better than what we have in the actual Europe Beating Cancer Plan. Because I have to say that the Commission has up until now been very negative about these alternatives to smoking, about this harm reduction measures. And I think that the Parliament’s position is more balanced in that sense. But of course, now we have to see in the coming period what will happen with the concrete legislation, how it will be changed, like on tobacco advertising, on excise duties, on taxation and things like that. So we’ll see the direction this will take. So, I believe that we should not put harm reduction instruments on the same level. And for instance, charge them with the same taxes as concrete cigarettes. I think that we have to be more pragmatic here. And they have I think that we have to recognise that these kinds of things can be beneficial for some people, and we have to try to recognise this.
Q. I understand your point. And actually, especially people in the addiction community, praised the decision of the European Parliament to recognize e-cigarettes as a tool that can help smokers quit. How do you see the topic being dealt with going forward?
A. As I said, we will see. It will depend on the Commission a lot about concrete legislative proposals, but also on the parliament. So, it’s really hard to tell. As I said, the Commission generally has a pretty negative position towards this, but in the end it all comes out to compromises. So, EU legislation is done on the basis of many compromises because in the end, as I said, the Commission proposes, but both the Parliament and the Council, some Member States through the Council, need to make the final decision. And this will be this compromise will be done in this trial between these two institutions. And I believe that the final results should be positive. But, of course, this is something that will take a certain period of time, that can take up to several years. So it’s very hard for me to define a concrete timetable or predict a concrete timetable where these new measures will be adopted.
Q. Changing the argument and speaking about the pandemic. As a member of the Special Committee on the COVID 19 pandemic, what are the committee’s plans to combat the outbreak of new endemics and pandemics?
A. It’s pretty early to tell about the committee’s plans. The main objective of the committee is to define which lessons we learn from the previous pandemic. And it’s really hard to predict new pandemics because, for instance, if we buy now 10,000 or 20,000 new respirators, we don’t know. Maybe new pandemics will have nothing to do with this, with respiratory system, and maybe it will be something completely different. So, it’s very hard to predict what will happen and it’s really hard to prepare in that sense. I think that what we need in Europe is we need to have a more adaptable and more flexible and faster decision making so that when a new crisis comes that we don’t lose two or three months on export restrictions, closures of borders, organising coordination, etc., so that this system of common response and coordination and cooperation needs to be ready. And I think that that we have already done a lot in terms of strengthening the mandate of European Union agencies in that sense. So, I think we are going in the right direction. When you speak about the committee – the committee unfortunately has defined its mandate, has been defined in a very, very broad manner. So, it more or less covers all the consequences of the pandemic on economic, social tourism, whatever, which I think is a good thing to discuss these things. But I do not think that necessarily it’s good to have all of this in one committee. I think that it would have been better that this committee focused more on the actual health topics, health issues, the lessons learned about how to better organize and manage health care systems and coordinate health care responses to future pandemics. I think that the work of the committee would have been more streamlined in that way, instead of going so broadly to cover all possible consequences of the pandemic.Q. Studies have shown that the pandemic has had a very negative toll on the mental health of adults and children. This is an issue that you have been very vocal about, calling for more investment in early detection and treatment of mental disorders. What should be done in this area to accompany and to help people suffering from such problems?
A. Now, I think mental health should definitely become a much higher priority than it is now. But this is not just the question of the European Union, but also of the Member States, because we know that primary competence to organize and manage and finance healthcare systems rests with the member states. You can support them and help them, but we cannot impose some common standards, etc. But I think that still within these powers that we have on EU level, that it is possible to make an EU strategy on EU mental health similar to EU Beating Cancer Plan and to define which actions need to be taken. And then to support Member States actions in terms specifically of funding, but also in terms of organization and strengthening the capacity of Member States to tackle this. But I think the crucial thing is to really put mental health in the spotlight, because in most cases it is not maybe that visible, physically visible. The consequences of mental disorders are not that physically visible around us. People do not think of this as a real health care priority, but it definitely is. Mental disorders are probably the most spread type of health disorder. If you look at all the types of diseases and this is something that we will definitely have to tackle more strongly than we did before. And especially these consequences of the lockdowns, of masks, of lack of direct physical contact and communication will be very severe. And so first, I think that we need more data on this, and I think that we should also try to fund some studies to show the actual long-term consequences of COVID on mental health and indeed the common European strategy. And we need to engage with the Member States on how better to tackle the problem of mental health disorders and how to increase investments in that sense, both from EU level and from national.
Q. One final question. Are you in favour of a specific health committee in the European Parliament or do you have a different idea on how the work of the BECA Committee can continue?
A. Very short answer. Yes, I’m definitely in favor of a special health committee because currently healthcare is in the same committee with the environment, and these are two of the most important policies of the EU. And there is no logic or common sense that these two such important issues are dealt with in one committee. And we have special committees for things which are much less important, or which are completely outside of the scope of the EU. So, I believe definitely that we need a special committee on healthcare so that we put more focus on health care. Because, for instance, now with all the discussions on Fit for 55, healthcare has again been put in the background of the work of the ENVI committee.
Thank you very much, Mr. Sokol, for your thoughts and the time today. I wish you all the best in your important work going forward.
Thank you to our viewers and see you on our next interview of Askanews EU Verified Series.