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Is austerity a threat to EU health policy?

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Is austerity a threat to EU health policy?

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Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“From bees to horse-meat to ageing populations – an eclectic mix of issues, yet all in one man’s portfolio. And to top it all, a smattering of controversy and scandal. It’s certainly been a busy six months in office. Our guest in ITalk this week is Mr Tonio Borg, who is the EU commissioner for health and consumer policy. Many thanks for joining us. Let’s go straight to our first question.”

Question from Michel, Belgium:

“Hello, I’m Michel Cliquet, from East-Flanders. I would like to know what the European Union is doing to prevent horse meat from being sold as beef?”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Well, you have just presented a new set of EU food safety proposals. But we’re going to have to wait until 2016, until they are adopted into law, possibly. What happens in the meantime?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“First of all, this horse-meat scandal was not a food safety issue. It was a question of fraud against the consumer.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Ok, but there is a ‘yuk’ factor. How do we know that we are not going to be eating horse-meat?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“In fact, we already have legislation on labelling. What is important is that when people are caught violating EU law, they are punished. Today, we already have dissuasive and appropriate punishment applied by EU member states. We are going to increase the dose by legislating to the effect that the pecuniary penalty has to be equal to the economic gain made out of the violation of EU law. And then there will be other inspections, unannounced, and also the Commission will be able to oblige member states to do the testing. I must say that the testing of DNA was done by all member states beyond the number suggested.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“I guess that you must be expecting something like this to happen again, possibly in the near future, because this is the result of an economic crisis, where suppliers are squeezed financially to provide cheaper and cheaper products.”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“Well, mostly, it’s a question of economic gain, illicit economic gain. Of course, once there is a law, there is nothing preventing anyone from violating it. What is important is that he or she is caught, and that that person is judged by the state courts in the member states. I must say that the entire scandal was discovered through enforcement by a member state, in this case, Ireland.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“So, China is, at the moment, in the throes of a food scandal itself, where rat meat is being sold as lamb. Now, given that we’ve got a confusion in our food chain here in Europe, can you be sure that we’re not being sold Chinese meat here?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“We do conduct inspections outside the European Union, so that importation of food products from outside the EU has to come from certain approved sites, sometimes even approved regions, so this is the food chain…”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“But can you be sure? Can you be sure that meat from China is not coming into Europe?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“No, sometimes we import food products from outside the EU, we are not completely self-sufficient.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“But is there a possibility that this tainted meat could reach Europe?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“Not that I know of because we do sound inspections outside the EU.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“But it could?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“Everything can happen. I mean, even three summers ago, there was the importation of vegetables from outside the EU, which happened to be contaminated, and we had fatalities in that respect. So in this era of globalisation and free market, also within the EU, everything can happen. But I think we have one of the best food safety systems in the world and one of the best labelling legislations in the world as well, and we should be proud of that.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Ok, let’s move on to our next question which comes from Latvia.”

Question from Baiba, Latvia:

“Hello my name is Baiba, I’m from Latvia. My question is: how can you ensure that the new law on a ban for bee-pesticides will be enforced?”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“So this isn’t actually a ban yet. It’s a suspension, I think, for two years. But how are you going to monitor this? It’s rather tricky.”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“There was resistance against this ban, but there was an absolute majority in favour, there wasn’t the qualified majority in favour, neither against, in which case the Commission then proceeds with its ban, and that is EU law. So it will be enforced, and if member states do not enforce it, then it will be up to the Commission to start infringement proceedings.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Ok, but you are fighting a very powerful lobby, the pesticide lobby, and they have been arguing that, over the course of five years – if this ban were to go to five years – this would cost the European economy something like 17 billion euros and something like 50,000 jobs. What do you say to that?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“I must say that some member states have already implemented, before the ban, the ban itself. And these economic apocalyptic consequences did not result. So, we have to protect our bees, because our bees are doing this pollination, which, if it had to be translated into euros, it would cost billions of euros as well.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“So are the pesticide companies acting in bad faith?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“No, I’m saying that they are not correct on this position, and after all, it is scientific evidence, which has been the basis of the Food Safety Authority’s opinion, and they cannot ignore this scientific opinion.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Let’s go now to our final question, which comes from Greece.”

Question from Katerini, Greece:

“Hello, my name is Katerini, I’m from Greece. I have a question to ask: faced with an ageing population, how will the EU manage health issues in the future?”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“This is a good question isn’t it? Because in less than forty years, it’s estimated that a third of the European population is going to be over sixty. Is it unsustainable in terms of looking after their health?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“In these times of economic crisis, there will be cuts in health budgets as well. I mean, this will be normal. So rather than whining about these cuts, one has to spend money in a smarter way, without, however, going below the threshold of what is essential for healthcare, particularly towards the ageing population. We have what we call the “Innovative Partnership on Healthy Ageing”, which we promote at the European Commission. But we also have to discover new means of cutting costs and retaining healthcare. For instance, e-health. It would be something very positive if all member states would indulge in this e-health. I will be visiting Northern Ireland next week to see what they have done in e-health, which was a very successful experiment. More than 20,000 patients are involved in this e-health, where you are monitored, your health situation is monitored from the centre and you remain at home. This would be beneficial for those who have reached a certain age, rather than going to clinics and covering these distances, they would be effectively and efficiently monitored while staying at home, and at the same time it would cut costs for the state.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“You mentioned people were whining about the health cuts. Who’s whining?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“Everybody whines sometimes, because noone likes cuts. Even the Commission had to redraft its budget because of the cuts which we had in the multi-annual financial programme.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“But do you accept that now, in this period of economic crisis, people aren’t really able to afford healthcare, and we are possibly going to see a degradation of health across Europe?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“It shouldn’t be so. In fact we are going to establish a panel of experts, within my services, to give the proper advice to health systems, because otherwise they will no longer be viable, and that would lead to the collapse of the entire system. So if we don’t take immediate action now, not only in our economies, but also in our health systems, then we are inviting big problems for the future. So it’s better to take the preventive medicine now.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Is it up to the EU how much national governments spend on health?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“No, it’s a question of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is very strong in the health sector. So we actually coordinate, try and help states to reach their goals, but it remains the prime responsibility of the member states. What we are encouraging them to do is to invest more in prevention, because now only three percent is invested in prevention.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“But the troika has actually slashed spending on health in Greece and Portugal.”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“Yes, as well, which does not mean slashing directly, but trying to use the funds that they have in a smarter way. So it is in the interest of the member states to reform their health systems if they want viable health systems for the future.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Ok, and finally, slightly off topic: when you were elected commissioner, there was some controversy over your personal views, particularly same-sex marriage and divorce. What do you say to your detractors who said that your personal values would affect policy-making?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“Judge me by my actions. I think I have been very active in certain respects, as regards animal welfare, as regards other issues as well, and I have respected the principle of subsidiarity, that is to say in most matters which you have mentioned those are the responsibilites of member states and not of the Commission.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“And so your personal values will not influence policy-making in the future?”

EU Commissioner Tonio Borg:

“My personal values are my personal values. They are important, in the same way as other commissioners have their personal values, but we are here as EU Commissioners and we apply EU law.”

Isabelle Kumar, euronews:

“Commissioner, many thanks for joining us on ITalk. To find out who our next ITalk guest will be, check out our website and then post us your questions, either video or written. From the European Parliament studios in Brussels, I’m Isabelle Kumar, thank you for joining us.”