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The EU and Health


Health is a national responsibility of Member States but the EU supports limited co-operation between Member States in order to protect public health and to enable free movement of people. The EU health card, ensuring equal treatment for tourists and visitors when travelling, is the most well-known aspect of EU health policy. The EU is also an important regulator in the field of pharmaceutical safety and a supporter of research into health and medicine.

The European Commission is currently developing a fresh strategy for health which it hopes to present in the summer of 2007.


Article 152 of the Treaty establishing the European Community 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 human illness and disease including tackling drug abuse. Regulation of pharmaceuticals comes under the single market provisions of the treaty. Research and development work in this field is funded through the 7th framework programme for R & D (see separate briefing note for details of the framework programme generally).

The EU’s current health strategy was adopted in 2000 and covered the period until 2006. The consultation on the replacement strategy closed in February 2007. The intention is that the new strategy should incorporate all the elements of health protection across the EU, setting clear objectives for the work that is needed at European level.

Public Health

About €50 (£34m) million will be spent annually between now and 2013 on the EU’s public health programme. Much of this will be spent in the field of cross-border health threats. The EU has an agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control based in Stockholm, which is responsible for gathering information on communicable diseases and passing this to national health protection agencies. In an age of mass movement of peoples this is a valuable way to enhance prevention because it enables speedy gathering of information about disease and then rapid warning of its spread.

The EU began planning work for an influenza pandemic in 1998 and decided in May 2007 to renew the Health Security Committee, the body which co-ordinates much of the planning to deal with cross-border threats of this kind. Its work, which is informal and advisory, now encompasses preparation to cope with potential acts of terrorism that may affect human health.

More traditional public health work includes campaigns to address the resurgence in HIV/AIDs in Europe, promotion of better health (including the EU-wide ban on tobacco advertising and the sponsorship of events) and major campaigns against drug abuse which supplement the EU’s Action Plan on drugs under the crime and justice programme.

Access to Medical Treatment

The freedom to travel, live or work anywhere in the EU would be fundamentally devalued without access to healthcare on the same terms as the local population. The European Health Insurance Card enables EU citizens (and those of some other European countries making 31 in all) to use local health services if they are taken ill or have an accident while travelling or living in another EU Member State. In most cases EU residents cannot use the health services of other Member States for non-urgent treatment but there are now exceptions to this where the home country cannot provide treatment within a reasonable timeframe.

Pharmaceutical Regulation

The European Medicines Agency, the body responsible for approving all medicines used for treating humans or animals within the EU, is based at Canary Wharf in London. The decision to locate the agency in the UK reflected the fact Britain is a major centre for pharmaceutical production and research.

Medicines to be used on humans or animals have to pass through an evaluation process to ensure that they are safe. Over 4,000 experts across Europe are involved in this evaluation process and the EMA works with other organisations in this field, such as the World Health Organisation, to ensure common standards are applied. The existence of the agency makes it possible for there to be a safe single market in medicinal products and health treatments.


The EU is planning to spend €6 billion (£4b) on health research between 2007 and 2013 under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7). This work is being funded with the twin objectives of improving the health of people in Europe and of strengthening the competitiveness of Europe’s health-related industries.

The European Cancer Research Survey found in 2003 that the EU Member States spend seven times less per person than the USA on cancer research. It is no surprise that cancer research is one of the priorities for the Seventh Framework programme.

June 2007

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