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EU Policy. Who's in the frame to be the next health Commissioner?

With the main candidate suddenly out of the game, the race for the health portfolio in the next EU executive came back on again
With the main candidate suddenly out of the game, the race for the health portfolio in the next EU executive came back on again Copyright Xavier Lejeune/EC - Audiovisual Service
Copyright Xavier Lejeune/EC - Audiovisual Service
By Marta Iraola IribarrenGerardo Fortuna
Published on Updated
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With a key contender suddenly out of the game, the race for the health portfolio in the next EU executive is back in play.

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Malta's official nominee for the next Commission, Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne - a surgeon and Europe's longest-serving health minister - was considered a likely pick to replace Cypriot Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.

The health community was however caught by surprise when Fearne was charged by prosecutors in a national corruption scandal, resigned and asked for his nomination to the EU Commission to be withdrawn.

Inevitably new names have now started to circulate as possible contenders for the health portfolio, albeit very prematurely in view of the elections next week.

These are some names that recur in relation to the post among the Brussels health community, although these appointments are always complicated by numerous external factors, on the balance of the executive as to gender and geography for example.

Why it won’t (likely) be Kyriakides

The odds of the outgoing EU health champion winning the portfolio race again are quite slim – but still exist and she has not clarified yet whether she wants to be re-appointed.

"Commissioner Kyriakides is continuing to focus her full attention on her current work and the many important tasks and challenges to be addressed still during this mandate," a Commission source told Euronews.

Having weathered the pandemic, the Cypriot enjoys a good reputation on the health side – though she is perceived to have neglected her side-portfolio on food safety.

She’s also appreciated by von der Leyen and considered one of the best speakers of the current College, having recently been sent to represent the Commission at international fora such as the Davos’ World Economic Forum.

Trickier for her re-appointment, however, is that despite being politically active in the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), her national Democratic Rally is no longer in the ruling coalition of Cyprus.

It is also quite rare for an outgoing Commissioner to be reappointed to the same portfolio – two exceptions to this general rule were made in the current administration for seasoned heavyweights Valdis Dombrovskis and Margrethe Vestager.

The Data Space twins

A solid candidate appears to be Belgian Deputy PM and Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke, who currently chairs the health ministerial meetings for the rotating Council presidency held by Belgium.

The health programme of the Belgian presidency was unusually dense and ambitious, closer to a declaration of intent for health policymaking for the next five years rather than a six-month to-do list.

Vandenbroucke successfully concluded negotiations on the delicate Health Data Space file and launched the Critical Medicines Alliance to address the issue of drug shortages, earmarked to be a key topic in the next Commission.

Belgium’s Commissioner pick will depend on national elections in June though as, in general, top jobs like this or the Prime Minister’s are agreed in coalition agreements through a complicated point system.

However, in the event that no executive is up and running by the time Belgium is due to proffer a Commissioner’s name (last time around, it took Belgium 494 days after the election to form a government) the current ruling coalition will do it.

In that case, Vandenbroucke stands a good chance of being appointed, considering he is a Flemish speaker and an informal rule provides for the post to alternate between the countries’ language communities.

Vandenbroucke’s counterpart on the Health Data Space file, Parliament’s rapporteur Tomislav Sokol, is also rumoured to be a pick for Croatia if assigned to the health portfolio.

As an MEP, Sokol took an active part in some of the biggest health files of the mandate, including the update on the EU pharmaceutical legislation, and he was also a member of the parliament’s health committee and the two special committees on cancer and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The two main problems standing between him and the Berlaymont are the current Croatian Commissioner Dubravka Šuica – who may be reappointed and may also get the health portfolio – and CroatianPM Andrej Plenković who’s rumoured to be the EPP’s reserve choice for the Commission presidency if Ursula von der Leyen's candidacy fails.

‘Impossible’ picks

Other names now doing the rounds seem less probable, however.

For instance, Chris Fearne’s rumoured successor, Maltese environment minister Miriam Dalli was as an MEP active on health topics – particularly on the medicinal use of cannabis, on which Malta is a pioneer in Europe. However, energy topics are her forte, and she is more tipped for the transport portfolio.

Vlastimil Válek, Czechia’s deputy prime minister and minister of health in Petr Fiala’s conservative government, is well-liked in the health community as he is a former radiologist and did a good job during the Czech presidency in 2022.

According to an informal coalition agreement, Czechia’s next Commissioner should however be picked between the Pirates or the liberal party, while Fiala’s choice appears to be his trade minister Jozef Síkela.

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Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas is tipped to be the next EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, but if she were called to replace Charles Michel as European Council chair instead, health could be a good portfolio for the country which pioneered the use of health records and genomic research.

Riina Sikkut, who has served as Estonian health minister since April 2023 and is a member of party the Kallas’ coalition, is considered a good pick if this situation materialises.

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