Environment and health
Environmental problems, such as air pollution, do not stop at national borders. Influenced in part by global developments, the EU has built up an impressive body of legislation, whereby the Member States are collectively seeking solutions for tackling cross-border environmental problems such as air pollution, water pollution and loss of biodiversity. A classic example of this is the European Emissions Trading Scheme. It is the world's largest carbon market, with the aim of bringing about the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective manner. Furthermore, this kind of European approach guarantees fair competition between the Member States, which often maintain different rules.
Belgium always endeavours to play a highly proactive and constructive role in the discussions around European environmental policy. It aims to pursue the reconciliation of a high level of environmental protection with the principles of fair competition and the potential impact on the fabric of society, in accordance with the three pillars of sustainable development. Highly extensive harmonisation and a systematic application of the community method are key factors in this. Belgium also attaches great importance to the precautionary principle and the principle of the polluter paying.
Ambitious objectives for air quality elicit various advantages in terms of improving public health. Nonetheless, our highly developed transport network and closely interwoven industrial fabric do not make it easy for a country like Belgium to achieve the objectives imposed by the EU around air quality, which are often very ambitious.
Since the Belgian Presidency in 2010, the prudent and efficient handling of natural resources and raw materials has been high on the European agenda. Concepts like sustainable management of materials, resource efficiency and the circular economy have since made inroads into the policies of Member States. Not only at a European level, but at a global level too, Belgium has been highlighting the need for more sustainable production and consumption patterns. Following the adoption of a broad European action plan on the circular economy in June 2016, which later turned out to be highly successful and efficient, the EU has developed a new action plan, which – to Belgium's satisfaction – has great consideration for the link between the circular economy and the climate, a more coherent product policy with an enhanced role for the consumer, and finally includes the need for a for preventative approach to waste policy.
The Environmental Action Programmes are the current European policy framework regarding the environment and form the guiding principle for environmental policy in the EU. Through these programmes, the European Commission is endeavouring to achieve an efficient and sustainable economy, in which nature is protected and the health and well-being of citizens are guaranteed. In the wider context of the Green Deal, the finishing touches are currently be put to a new 8th Environmental Action Programme, to Belgium's great satisfaction. This programme is more focused, subscribing to the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Finally, the greening of the European Semester's process is a sustained point of horizontal interest for Belgium. In this respect, the European Semester should be a tool whereby synergies can be forged between the environment on the one hand, and policy areas such as industry, research and development and innovation on the other. In any event, the new European Commission has taken the first step towards such synergies, via the integration of the Sustainable Development Goals into the European Semester.
The EU Member States largely organise their own healthcare for their citizens. The EU supplements national policy by establishing common objectives. For example, the EU provides help in tackling common challenges such as epidemics, chronic illnesses or an ageing population. A European approach to advantages of scale also means that resources can be pooled, as took place with the joint purchasing of COVID-19 vaccines.
The EU health policy translates into a health strategy that includes a focus on prevention through the promotion of a healthier lifestyle, equal access to healthcare for everyone (irrespective of income, gender, race, etc.) and tackling serious international threats to health.
The European Union was hit very badly by the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020. Despite the limited powers that it possesses to formulate a response to this, the European institutions and agencies have nonetheless succeeded in taking co-ordinated measures in various areas in a short space of time: the joint purchasing of protective equipment and vaccines, issuing guidelines relating to testing methods, travel recommendations and the development of the EU Digital COVID certificate, approving flexible state support and economic measures to alleviate the social and economic consequences for the Member States. Nonetheless, there turned out to be some room for improvement too: the aim of the proposed legislation from the EU Health Union package is to make the EU stronger and more resilient against future cross-border health crises.
Objectives for Belgium
Belgium broadly supports the above points for consideration in the European policy.
Although a great many powers in respect of health have already been transferred to regions/communities since the various state reforms – including preventative healthcare and health education – the main lines of force in Belgian policy largely remain at the federal level. The same applies to co-ordination at the European level.
Belgium is joining in with the European-level efforts for sustainable, accessible and high-quality healthcare. In this regard, Belgium is sharing in the thinking around the adoption of technological tools and digital applications in the context of care, e.g. telemedicine and mobile health.
More thematic priorities in Belgian policy relate to the consequences of an ageing population, issues around dementia and preventing the use of harmful determinants for health, in particular alcohol and tobacco. Belgium also has consideration for issues around health inequality between and within the Member States.
Belgium also subscribes to the objectives of the EU Health Union legislation package. This will allow the EU institutions and agencies to respond to future health crises more effectively, and in a quicker and more efficient manner. It is important to make use of the momentum of the COVID-19 pandemic to enhance EU health policy and the relevant actors.