The ambition of the Belgian Presidency of the European Union (EU) is to lay the foundation for the continent’s new socioeconomic strategy until the year 2020. To this end, it will be necessary to restart the economy, reregulate financial markets, solidify social cohesion, and pave the way for a successful transition to a more ecologically sound vision of economic, industrial, and social progress. These are the four basic pillars of the new socioeconomic foundation, from which we can make positive changes in our modes of production and consumption. These pillars must be built concurrently, without one gaining priority over the others.
In 1968, Europe’s youth rallied to give “power to the imagination” and pressed their contemporaries to search for “the beach under the cobblestones” (sous les pavés la plage) of Paris. Forty years later, young people are taking to the streets of Europe to denounce the excesses of a socioeconomic model whose consequences are dramatically illustrated by the current crisis. The contexts of the demonstrations are different, and so are the motivations and demands, but just as the May 1968 events left lasting impressions and inspired an entire generation, the year 2010 will also stand out as a conceptual turning point for the continent. As the country holding the rotating presidency of the European Union during the second half of 2010, Belgium will be in charge of defining a common response. My responsibility will be to coordinate this response in the areas of social affairs and public health.
The consequences of the financial and economic crisis are being felt on a daily basis. We need to ensure that the recovery takes place as quickly as possible and that no one is left behind. At a later stage, the European Union will also have to start fashioning new growth patterns; indeed, it will have to recast its socioeconomic model, which has demonstrated its failure. The EU must show that the accumulation of material goods is not the sole road to prosperity. It must rediscover the human being behind the consumer. It must stop assessing economic activity exclusively on the basis of profitability and must also evaluate it in terms of social benefits. It must ensure that the pursuit of personal interests contributes to the collective well-being.
We cannot do this without a sustainable development strategy that encompasses economic, social, and environmental dimensions. We will need quantitative and qualitative objectives, as well as binding sustainability criteria, clear-headed governance, and adequate financial means. Economics will naturally assume its place in the 2020 strategy, but social and environmental issues will still be crucial. As the presidency country, we must explain that the economy will wither if it is surrounded by a social and environmental desert. And we will have to convince the rest of the EU before the reality is forced upon us all by events. We must establish a regulatory framework that includes basic social standards, add social guidelines to Europe’s “growth and jobs” governance, implement the European Commission’s 2008 recommendation for the active inclusion of people who are excluded from the labor market, introduce the concept of analyzing the social impact of regulations, and reflect on the best strategies for reducing the “social fracture.” These concrete and tangible measures would help improve European citizens’ ownership of the European project.
The Belgian Presidency will take the debate beyond minimum standards of social protection. It will endeavor to generate concrete results on tangible measures. It will deal with the issue of “replacement rates” of workers, notably in relation to pensions. To this end, a conference will be dedicated to the provision of adequate social security for all European citizens by the year 2020. The Belgian Presidency will also organize a conference aimed at strengthening the Open Method of Coordination; this type of policy making—based on guidelines, indicators, and benchmarks implemented through peer pressure—is an essential instrument to encourage convergence among EU member states in social areas. The ultimate intention will be to consolidate this convergence on an improved and enhanced social base. Finally, the Belgian Presidency will organize the third edition of the Biennial Forum on Social Services of General Interest, whose objective will be to demonstrate the indispensable contribution of social public services to the stability and harmony of European society and to protect these services against attacks in the context of the European single market.
The Belgian Presidency will offer an opportunity to move toward achieving the objectives of the EU’s 2008–2013 Health Strategy. Cancer is a plague against which the member states and the Union must relentlessly fight. With its national cancer plan, whose second phase is now under construction, Belgium can inspire and serve as an example toward the optimal use of the Union’s added value in this field. The fight against cancer will be at the heart of the first meeting of EU health ministers at the beginning of our presidency in July. Chronic diseases will also be the focus of a ministerial conference dedicated to better targeting of prevention and to adapting the European health system to treat these illnesses more successfully.
By placing cancer and chronic diseases among the priorities of its presidency, Belgium wants to prompt the European Union to invest more in prevention and care for the benefit of all. The involvement of all actors—especially patients—will be essential to the success of this process. We also want to see special attention paid to dementia. A high-level conference will be held with the dual objective of dispelling myths about dementia in the public and breaking through the isolation of people who suffer from it.
Belgium will urge the European Union to better assess the added value of new treatments and to guarantee increased coherence among the evaluations made in each of the member states. It is crucial, for example, that member states agree on the intrinsic value of newly patented medicines and new therapeutic uses for pharmaceuticals for which registration is being sought at the European level. In a context of free movement of goods, consistency among member states as to the therapeutic value of drugs will benefit all.
European citizens expect their governments to respond in the best possible manner to pandemics and other health threats. In this area, the European Union can offer an undeniable added value, which the Belgian Presidency will advocate and implement. The time has come to evaluate the methods used to control pandemics, such as the H1N1 virus. We must make this evaluation within the European Union framework, taking the global context into account through the prism of relations between the European Union and its international partners.
Like other sectors, health care is evolving rapidly. An aging population, an increasing number of high-tech therapies, and more and more rapidly evolving challenges require constant adaptation by health care professionals. A ministerial conference will be convened to zero in on these challenges and identify both the number of health care professionals required and what they will need to address the challenges.
From a legislative point of view, the draft directive on cross-border health care will certainly be the main challenge of the Belgian Presidency. We must strike the right balance between the legitimate desire of European citizens to be treated in the most effective manner anywhere in the European Union and the preservation of quality care systems based on solidarity and universal accessibility. The so-called “pharmaceutical package”—which consists of separate bills on counterfeit medicines and pharmacovigilance (prevention of adverse effects of drugs)—will also be at the core of our presidency’s legislative work.
Health occupies a very specific place on the European scene. In this respect, the Belgian Presidency must put everything in place to identify the concrete added value that the European Union can offer, and then make the most of it. Only by doing so will the Belgian Presidency contribute in this sector to consolidating European citizens’ support for the European project. The same goes for the social domain. European construction is a political process. It is not limited to economic and monetary issues. The European single market and the introduction of the single currency, the euro, have shown that borders can fall, to the benefit of the interests of several hundred million consumers. We must now achieve European integration in the social and health areas, in order to demonstrate that the European Union is also capable of serving the general interest of its citizens.
To go back to the 1968 slogan, a number of cobblestones still hide the beach. But thanks to the power of imagination and the strength of European conviction, we have the capacity to remove them, so that everyone will find his or her place in the sun.
Laurette Onkelinx is Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health of Belgium, responsible for social integration.