PharmExec Blog

The Bizarre European Political Bazaar

EU-flag2Pharm Exec Europe‘s Brussels correspondent Reflector is exasperated by some of the European Union’s more unusual institutional arrangements.

A senior Spanish diplomat told Reflector recently that, on the face of it, the European Union is a crazy set-up. He was talking about some of its bizarre institutional arrangements — such as a Commission composed of 27 national nominees, who are allocated jobs almost at random by the Commission president, almost irrespective of their skills and background, and are then subject to a sort of inquisition by the European Parliament which can turf any or all of them out on their ear anyway.

He knew what he was talking about. He was just coming to the end of Spain’s term in the (equally bizarre) institution of the rotating presidency of the EU’s Council, where national ministers and officials meet almost every day to discuss environment or energy or economics. Spain found itself in the curious position of leading European discussions on how to restore economic stability at the very time that it was not far behind Greece as a target of criticism for massive fiscal mismanagement.

The EU has just got more bizarre. As from the beginning of July, Belgium has taken over the rotating presidency, supposedly to lead the way towards the political and economic high ground that the EU aspires to. But Belgium doesn’t even have a real government, as it hovers on the brink of domestic balkanisation. Policy and principle are being sacrificed as desperate attempts are made to cobble together a coalition, after an inconclusive election last month increased the chances of the country splitting up altogether. And its state finances are in a pitiable condition too.

Some of these curious EU characteristic were reflected in the first working meeting of the new Belgian presidency – which (readers of EPE will be relieved to learn) took the shape of an informal meeting of EU health ministers.

Laurette Onkelinx, Belgium’s caretaker health minister (and care-taker deputy prime minister, for what that is worth) spoke imperturbably and at great length about her country’s ambitions for the next six months, as if she was unaware of the fact that she might be out of a job (and her country out of funds) long before then. And John Dalli, the ex-minister from tiny Malta, who this year finds himself in charge of a huge new domain as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs, struggled manfully — but not always successfully — to rise to the challenge. His discomfort was evident when asked to give an informed view of the fight against cancer, responsibility for vaccine campaigns, or discrimination against homosexuals in blood donor programmes.

Dalli’s predicament was most obvious when he tried to explain what he planned to do about drug information to patients. When he took office earlier this year, he inherited a Commission proposal, already one year old, to allow the public wider access to information about prescription medicines. This proposal, stigmatised by critics as a licence for the pharmaceutical industry to bring direct-to-patient advertising into Europe, has languished in the Council, unloved by most member states, who smell all sorts of trouble with their electorates if they are perceived as giving free rein to drug companies.

The health commissioner says he won’t withdraw it, and aims to move forward with it. But he admits that he doesn’t like it, and wants to make it “more patient-centred”. However, he is in a bit of a trap, because he can’t do much about modifying it until he has a view from the European Parliament and the Council. The parliament discussion is dragging on slower and slower — a tentative June date for a vote has already been put back to the autumn, and could easily extend further into the winter, or even next spring. And although Onkelinx made valiant noises alongside Dalli about getting a common position out of the Council by the end of the year, the prospects of any coherent Belgian management of EU debate seem more remote by the day.

As an equally disconcerting footnote, this meeting of health ministers and officials from across Europe was remarkable for one other thing — a generalised sense of hostility and distrust towards the pharmaceutical industry. Whether on vaccine supply or drug information, the predominant tone was recriminatory and suspicious. A recent drug industry meeting in London — the annual conference of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations – ambitiously explored the scope for building industry partnerships. That’s an initiative that has never been more urgently needed — and given the current European zeitgeist, couldn’t have been worst timed!


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