Whilst health policy and the organisation, financing and management of healthcare is a national responsibility of member countries, the EU also undertakes health-related activities, in particular, by supporting co-operation between member states in order to protect and promote public health and to enable the free movement of people around the EU.
Public health policy
Article 168 of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union sets out the objectives of EU health policy and the underlying legal basis for it. The emphasis is on co-ordination and co-operation, particularly in order to prevent major health threats such as human illness and disease.
Examples of the traditional EU-wide public health work include joint actions to address major diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDs, coordination on health threats including communicable diseases, and major campaigns against drug abuse.
The scope for EU legislation in the area of health policy is specifically limited, but incentive measures to promote and improve health can be adopted and this provides the basis for the EU4Health 2021-2027 programme, which provides EU funding to support the health agenda.
The EU is also responsible for setting policy on plant and animal health and food safety, both areas having important implications for human health. Together with public health and consumer policy, these form the responsibilities of the EU Health Commissioner, supported by the European Commission's Directorate General for Health and Food Safety, often known as 'DG Santé' (a shortened version of its name in French). The Commissioner for Health is Stella Kyriakides.
Presidency of the Council
In addition to the agenda taken forward by the European Commission, the country holding the Presidency of the Council will usually set some priorities of its own in the area of health, which it will pursue during its 6-month stint at the helm. Portugal currently holds the Presidency and its main priority will be to deliver a fair, green, digital recover post COVID-19.
Wider EU policies and health
The EU also pursues the protection and promotion of health through activities in other policy areas, as the treaties include a general requirement that health should be protected in all Community policies. For example, the EU single market rules provide the legal basis for laws on recognition of professional qualifications which allow healthcare staff to work anywhere in Europe, as well as the EU-wide requirements for health warnings on tobacco products.
Common minimum standards on employment rights and health and safety at work are also set at EU level, for example, through the Working Time Directive, and developments in these areas are of key importance to the NHS in its role as Europe’s largest employer.
The European Commission has a legal duty to consult representatives of employers and employees on all employment-related proposals and this is taken forward through a process called social dialogue. The NHS European Office represents the NHS in the EU social dialogue process through our membership of two European social partner organisations, HOSPEEM (representing employers in the hospital and healthcare sector) and CEEP (representing the range of public sector employers).
The Influencing EU Policy section of our website gives more information about the implications of specific EU policies and initiatives for the NHS.
More information about the impact of EU law on the NHS and the NHS' engagement with European affairs can be found in this edition of Eurohealth, a publication from LSE Health and the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies.