1 October 2014, Brussels - By European Parliament standards, Commissioner-designate Vytenis Andriukaitis’ performance could be judged to be “satisfactory”. He showed his commitment to protect European citizens’ health and well-being, and improve underlying determinants of health and physical environment. Now we will really have to see how he intends to turn words into concrete action. He was very outspoken on the issues of prevention, promotion and protection of people’s health, but shied away from making any concrete or far-reaching political commitments without a proper and well-informed debate.
This was particularly the case regarding any new legislative proposals, as these would have to be scrutinised by other Commissioners and the First Vice-President in charge of Better Regulation. He seems to know his way around the issue of genetically modified organisms, is against any lowering of health and food standards in the free trade negotiations between EU-US, and is committed to making sure health is taken up in a consistent and systematic way during the European Semester and Country Specific Recommendations’ discourse.
Mr Andriukaitis was also questioned about the move of competencies for pharmaceutical industry and the control of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) out of his future Directorate-General and into the Directorate-General for Industry and Enterprise – an issue he was confident would be taken care of through an informed and respectful co-decision process between himself and Commissioner Bienkowska (if approved). One point of interest to make about his performance was his statement that he would not be intimidated by the pharmaceutical industry, having managed to stand strong against the KGB under the Soviet regime.
The EU Commissioner-designate for Health and Food Safety, Mr Vytenis Andriukaitis, was interviewed in the European Parliament’s committee for Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI Committee) yesterday morning. In addition to being questioned by Members of the European Parliament of this particular committee, he faced questions from the EP Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.
After being introduced by the chair of the ENVI Committee, Giovanni La Via MEP, the Commissioner-designate gave his introductory speech and made reference to his early childhood in the hostile environment of Siberia, his work in opposing the Soviet Union’s KGB service and his medical career, that paved the way towards his involvement in Lithuanian politics, crowned with his co-authorship of the Lithuanian declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. The Commissioner-designate seems to confidently and comfortably find his way around switching from one language to another (English, German, Lithuanian, Polish).
Answers he provided to the committee’s pre-prepared written questions (can be found here). In these, he laid out his major priorities if elected Commissioner – all linked to three overarching principles that he returned to throughout his introductory speech – prevention, promotion and protection:
to deliver real benefits to citizens and support key sectors of the EU economy, such as the healthcare sector – a major job creator – as well as the agro-food industry which can only prosper if trade flows under safe conditions;
to support efforts to make health systems more efficient and innovative, against a background of population ageing, a growing burden of chronic diseases and increasing demand for quality healthcare, so that they can provide equitable healthcare to all citizens, while remaining financially sustainable. Notably, he will work to assess the performance of health systems within the European Semester Country Specific Recommendations; furthermore, he will promote the uptake of innovation for healthy and active ageing;
to focus on enhancing prevention; ensuring that recent EU legislation actually has an impact on the protection of public health and delivers results to citizens – notably, through the Tobacco Products Directive, the Directive on patients’ rights in cross border healthcare, cooperation on eHealth and Health Technology Assessment;
to be fully prepared to health emergencies, such as the current Ebola outbreak
to ensure that every initiative on health contributes to bridging the wide inequalities in health that persist in Europe;
As to issues of food safety, the Commissioner-designate stated that he would:
ensure that European citizens continue to enjoy the highest food safety standards in the world. In fact, Mr Andriukaitis took the issue of food even further by promising to promote healthy and safe food as a means to prevent unnecessary spending in healthcare and help Member States improve the long term sustainability of their health systems;
focus on high standards of animal and plant health, safe additives, pesticides and biocides; rigorous and transparent scientific risk assessments of new products and technologies; and strict enforcement of controls;
review within the first six months of his mandate (if elected) the legislation applicable to the authorisation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in line with President-elect Juncker’s political guidelines;
prioritise the issue of fighting food fraud;
In regards to the Better Regulation agenda, including the quality and transparency of legislative proposals, the Commissioner-designate stated that before considering shaping new policy, and to achieve the most efficient solution for citizens’ health and safety, he would “ensure a thorough evaluation of the results of existing action, and carry out an in-depth impact assessment, with extensive stakeholder consultations”.
He also pledged to seek synergies with the portfolios of other Commissioners and to prioritise inter-service work as “every policy has a health vector, be it from Education to Transport, from Agriculture to the Digital Agenda”.
He then continued to talk on the subject of quality health systems, universal access to care, and EU added value in supporting and assisting national governments in their endeavours. Notably, he elaborated on the much criticised issues of fiscal sustainability and austerity measures in response to the economic crisis and stated that these should not be seen as more important than and should not undermine equity and citizens’ access to high quality healthcare.
Mr Andriukaitis then answered several rounds of questions from members of the ENVI and AGRI committees. The majority of questions concerned his plans to:
address issues of meat from cloned animals and their offspring (issue previously blocked by the European Parliament)
fully implement health laws that EU Member States are resistant to putting into national law – specifically the cross-border health directive (Andriukaitis says he is not hesitant in pursuing infringement proceedings against these MS)
review EU health claims legislation in 2015 and to discuss it with the European Parliament
uphold food and health safety standards, in light of EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP) as well as counteract the so-called regulatory chill against future legislation
increase public confidence in science in policymaking
address the issue of endocrine disruptors and promise to fulfil the European Commission obligation to define the criteria for identifying gender-bending chemicals
strengthen the Commission’s action on food waste, food poverty and revoke the ‘killed’ EC Communication on Sustainable Food System
act on animal welfare and animal transport
address the legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), cross-contamination and principles of subsidiarity and proportionality for Member States’ rejection or approval of GMOs cultivation, trade and consumption
address antibiotic use (especially in livestock production) and antimicrobial resistance
increase the uptake of innovative modern health technologies, the digital agenda through e-health and m-health tools and increase health literacy
encourage Member States to come to a unified position on the issue of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAP)
open a debate on nutritional labelling applied to alcohol products
thoroughly take up the issue of ‘brain drain’ and ‘social dumping’ in the healthcare workforce field
propose urgent measures against childhood obesity, in particular amongst the poorest segments of our societies and along a social gradient.
Some interesting comments on Twitter:
@BartStaes on #TTIP: allowing Chlorine, Lactic acid, #Cloning - how will you make sure not to cave in to certain demands?
@K_Konecna on #TTIP: Impact of the agreement on #Health. How will you prevent a decrease in patient protection?
@juliegirling Mr A says the "brain drain" of health workers from E Europe must end he’s looking for EU to act. challenge to free movement from the left?
Fellow Lithuanian Mazuronis MEP qn on #braindrain in #Health sector / Andriukaitis agrees,issue in other professions too #EPhearings2014; #Mazuronis: in many #EU MS, #health sector #braindrain is an issue. What can be done to tackle it? #EPhearings2014
@DacianaSarbu I asked Mr. #Andriukaitis to consider child #obesity an urgent priority for #EU #health policy. #EPhearings2014 @EP_Environment
@MargreteAuken Min kollega @IsabellaLovin udspørger Andriukaitis om AntibiotiskResis bakterier. Vigtigt med handling når dk svin er 90% inficerede. #eudk
@MargreteAuken #Andriukaitis compared pharmaceutical industry with KGB. Impressing. #EPhearings2014 #eudk
Mikolasik MEP- will the EU stop funding research on human embryo stem cells?
@NChildersMEP @Frederiqueries asks @V_Andriukaitis about cultivation of GMOs in the EU. He says it’s a serious issue. But need to respect subsidiarity...
Vytenis Andriukaitis’s confirmation hearing – as it happened, European Voice
What happens next
If not delayed by any possible changes to College of Commissioners, the expected timeline for the further process of the Commission formation will look as follows:
[Hearing assessment] Vytenis Andriukaitis European Commissioner-designate for Health and Food Safety