Roma, 12 lug. – 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 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 Czech Member of the European Parliament’s Pirates Party, Mikuláš Peksa. Mr Peksa was elected a Member of the Parliament in 2019 and is serving in the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE). He is also a trained biophysicist and a substitute member in the newly formed Special Committee on the Covid-19 pandemic.
Welcome, Mr Peksa and thank you for joining us today.
Q: Let’s start our interview by recapping a little on the Beating Cancer Plan that you followed closely: are you satisfied with the Plan that was adopted in plenary in February and do you believe that the Plan will effectively help beat cancer?
A: Well, this is the Plan I would expect the European Union to do. I mean, we need to support, or we need to have a general framework to support research capacities in the various member states in order to tackle the common issue. But what has to be said and what has to be always repeated is that the European Union itself cannot, from the top down, organize everything. So, it is very important to keep, let’s say, the initiative on the level of member states or regions and so on, to really use the full potential of such a plan.
Q: Now that the Plan is to be implemented throughout Europe, is there a certain area you believe should be prioritised?
A: What I see, and that’s maybe a general problem for all the research, is that we still kind of like fail in involving the new countries. I mean, most of the research capacities that are being involved in the community research projects are from Western Europe, while countries like Czechia or Poland and the others, are kind of like unconnected. And I know this, this is a structural problem that is kind of connected to research capacities in different countries and how they work. But I believe we should do better. And now during the implementation, we should definitely take care of that so that everybody is involved and works on the common effort.
Q: What will be the key challenges for the implementation of the Plan?
A: To be honest. I mean, this is always about how to set the goals, because from the political point of view, it is always complicated to assess which direction of the research will lead towards the end goal. Quite often science works that way, that you go in a wrong direction and then you realize that you should go in a different way. So, from my point of view, I would keep, let’s say, the necessary research freedom to keep that. And I believe the Plan, as it was approved, gives sufficient flexibility to the researchers.
Q: You have been very vocal about the need to implement harm reduction policies and not ban specific products to tackle addictions. The Beating Cancer Plan made a first step in recognising the role e-cigarettes had in helping smokers quit. Were you happy about how the report referred to this? Do you believe more should be done?
A: Well, we are now living in, let’s say, a general transition of health policy. So, all over the world from, let’s say, the original restrictive approach, it was quite like killing any attempt to build a bridge between the users and those who are trying to control substances. And we are moving toward the harm reduction principle so that there is a clear discussion about how to minimize the damage caused by using a particular substance or particular technology. I mean, here, when it comes to the Report, I think we have made progress because there is a slow, slow change of the mindset. But to be honest, should I write that I would definitely go much further to be absolutely clear that we are really fighting the addiction by providing more information and providing better support to those who are addicted rather than just oppressing them.
Q: You have also advocated for the Member States to adopt integrated addiction policies. How can this come about and what more should be done by the EU in your opinion?
A: Well, if you look into the structure of the Commission, you clearly see there are different directorates general which are like – you could call them – ministers should you dislike this, this approach outcome, which are tackling the issues of what are substances, but there is no real coherent strategy. I mean, you would maybe expect people who are dealing with addiction to alcohol to sit in the same department together as the people who are dealing with cigarettes addiction and trying to create coordinated policies in the various fields. I don’t think it’s the case. I mean, they are fragmented and moving quite in a different direction. So, at the end of the day, if you look, for example, on cannabis, which is in many respects less harmful, compared to, for example, alcohol, it is still being dealt with quite differently from alcohol addictions. So, I think what should happen is a sort of integration of those policies so that we have a clear overview and we try to reduce the harm that is caused to the consumers rather than oppress them. Because I mean, this is at the end of the day, the health issue we are trying to solve rather than a security issue. We should not make security issues out of health issues.
Q: The Czech Republic will be holding the Presidency of the European Council starting in July. What are your expectations for this presidency? Do you think the Czech Republic should champion harm reduction in health in the next six months – knowing the government recently announced that it will apply the policy of reduced risks to address addictions?
A: What we have been successful during the preparatory phase and I say we because, we – as the MEPs – have participated strongly in preparation of the priorities for the presidency, was the general agreement within the Government that harm reduction policies shall be deployed. Of course, now that’s within the Czech government. Now we have the bigger task because there will be coordination of 27 Member States of the European Union, which will have to coordinate on that. And here Czechs, I believe, are definitely willing to act as a mediator of the discussion towards, let’s say, the more progressive positions, depending of course, on 26 other players who can influence it. And it’s very much their right to do so. So, the practical implementation will be an outcome of those negotiations. But we are starting now and I am quite optimistic.
Q: You have been active on the Digital Services Act file. One issue that concerns the health community is the rise of disinformation. The pandemic has given rise to a flood of fake news and disinformation about vaccines, the virus, and health in general. What can be done to counter this disinformation?
A: We need to understand the fact that there will be and there are a lot of channels to distribute the disinformation. So, when we are talking about how to prevent them, we need to do something like vaccination of their respective followers or the users. The people should be able to distinguish what is true and what is false and should be able to react properly to the ongoing spread of disinformation in the network, because otherwise, if they are willing to spread the disinformation, there is effectively almost nothing we can do about that. So, from my point of view, in the practical implementation, we need to focus on education. We need to inform the people what are the consequences, we need to provide transparent information regarding the various vaccines. We also need to do fact-checking because quite often information that is factually wrong is spreading just because no one really provided correct sources for that information. And we really need to help people to be able to work properly with the information sources, to be able to verify the source of the information.
Q: Speaking about the pandemic, as a substitute member of the Special Committee on Covid-19, what are the Committee’s plans to combat the outbreak of new endemics and pandemics?
A: What we have generally realized was the fact that the European health systems were working more or less independently. So, if we, as mankind or Europeans are being attacked by such a virus, there is effectively not much coordination to tackle that. And I think what we need to realize is effectively the danger that a planet inhabited by 8 billion humans is easily a target for such a pandemic. This could not be the last one. So, what we need to prepare is really a coordinated response to pandemics, like the one we have encountered, because there is absolutely no guarantee that such a pandemic could not repeat. We need to coordinate our health systems to be able to tackle that. This is, of course, a very tricky issue because we need to share the health data while keeping the privacy of the people who are affected. I mean, health data are the most sensitive data in the world about any person. So we need to be absolutely careful about the way how it is evolving. This will create a lot of discussion about privacy and fundamental rights, and that’s something that is currently ongoing within the Committee.
Q: In some Member States, there is still vaccine hesitancy. Will the Committee address this issue and how?
A: This is very much about the information. I absolutely understand there are a lot of people who are hesitant. I think you perceive their reluctance and fears in very different countries, but have the same motives like fear. So, I think we generally can attract or tackle it from the European level, especially by means of transparency. I mean, when we are talking about the vaccines, the people shall have the right to know where we are buying the vaccines, who provided them for what price, how was that the procurement for those vaccines, and so on. Those are things that shall be published and from my point of view, the Committee’s role is definitely to ensure that the respective data that we owe to our citizens, will be published.
Q: You have called the rise in mental health issues a “second pandemic” and have advocated for more European coordination in the field. What should be done in this area to accompany and help people suffering from such problems?
A: We do face the same issues ongoing in different countries as the result of the pandemic, which resulted in quite a lot of isolation for the people in their homes, quite a lot of job losses, and many other issues. When we are tackling that, we shall again discuss the same issues that were connected to, let’s say, using of foreign substances. Because I mean at the end of the day, we have perceived also quite some steep rise in the consumption. So, what we need to do is really focus on the harm reduction to ensure that the people who are for various reasons in stressful situations are being integrated. They have the opportunity to talk about their problems. And we approach them without threatening them or scaring them to seek help. It’s quite important to build trust between those who are affected and those who are trying to help them because, without the trust, no help can be provided. And the system shall encourage that, shall build the bridges rather than breaking them.
Q: One final question, are you in favour of a specific health committee in the European Parliament?
A: Well, I believe the time has come for having a specific health committee because we have maybe thought in the 20th century that health is an issue that is based on the national level. The 21st century taught us it’s not the case. So, we will definitely need to coordinate our health policies and build a common European health system.
Thank you, Mr. Peksa, for your thoughts and time today. I wish you all the best in your important work going forward.