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European Health Union: Stronger crisis preparedness and response for Europe

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European Commission is taking the first steps towards building the European Health Union announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address. The Commission is putting forward a set of proposals to strengthen the EU’s health security framework, and to reinforce the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies. In order to step up the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and future health emergencies, more coordination at EU level is needed. Drawing lessons from the current crisis, today’s proposals will ensure stronger preparedness and response during the current and future health crises.

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen stated: “Our aim is to protect the health of all European citizens. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for more coordination in the EU, more resilient health systems, and better preparation for future crises. We are changing the way we address cross-border health threats. Today, we start building a European Health Union, to protect citizens with high quality care in a crisis, and equip the Union and its Member States to prevent and manage health emergencies that affect the whole of Europe.

Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, said: “Today, we are taking a big, meaningful step towards a genuine EU Health Union. We are strengthening our common crisis management to prepare and respond to serious cross border threats to health. Our EU agencies need to be equipped with stronger mandates to better protect EU citizens. To fight the COVID-19 pandemic and future health emergencies, more coordination with more efficient tools at EU level is the only way forward.

Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food safety said: “Health is more than ever an essential concern for our citizens. In times of crisis, citizens rightfully expect the EU to take a more active role. Today we are reinforcing the foundations for a more secure, better-prepared and more resilient EU in the area of health. This will be a significant change for the capacity to respond collectively. The European Health Union is all about preparing for and facing up to common health threats together, as a Union. We need to do this in order to meet the expectations of our citizens.

Today’s proposals focus on revamping the existing legal framework for serious cross border threats to health, as well as reinforcing the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies, namely the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

A stronger EU health security framework

To create a more robust mandate for coordination by the Commission and EU agencies, the Commission is today proposing a new Regulation on serious cross-border threats to health. The new framework will:

  • Strengthen preparedness: EU health crisis and pandemic preparedness plan and recommendations will be developed for the adoption of plans at national levels, coupled with comprehensive and transparent frameworks for reporting and auditing. The preparation of national plans would be supported by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and other EU agencies. The plans would be audited and stress tested by the Commission and EU agencies.
  • Reinforce surveillance: A strengthened, integrated surveillance system will be created at EU level, using artificial intelligence and other advanced technological means.
  • Improve data reporting: Member States will be required to step up their reporting of health systems indicators (e.g. hospital beds availability, specialised treatment and intensive care capacity, number of medically trained staff etc.).
  • The declaration of an EU emergency situation would trigger increased coordination and allow for the development, stockpiling and procurement of crisis relevant products.

Stronger and more operational EU Agencies

The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Medicines Agency have been at the forefront of the EU’s work to address COVID-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic. However, COVID-19 has shown that both agencies need to be reinforced and equipped with stronger mandates to better protect EU citizens and address cross border health threats.

The ECDC’s mandate will be reinforced so that it may support the Commission and Member States in the following areas:

  • epidemiological surveillance via integrated systems enabling real-time surveillance
  • preparedness and response planning, reporting and auditing
  • provision of non-binding recommendations and options for risk management
  • capacity to mobilise and deploy EU Health Task Force to assist local response in Member States
  • building a network of EU reference laboratories and a network for substances of human origin

The European Medicines Agency’s mandate will be reinforced so that it can facilitate a coordinated Union-level response to health crises by:

  • monitoring and mitigating the risk of shortages of critical medicines and medical devices
  • providing scientific advice on medicines which may have the potential to treat, prevent or diagnose the diseases causing those crises
  • coordinating studies to monitor the effectiveness and safety of vaccines
  • coordinating clinical trials.

The Commission is also today setting out the main elements of the future Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA), to be proposed by the end of 2021. Such a structure would be an important new element to support a better EU level response to cross-border health threats.

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EU Politics

Focus on the recovery from the pandemic at the 19th EU Regions Week

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The annual European Week of Regions and Cities has shown how the EU and national and regional governments can support European citizens and their local communities with public policies aimed at investing in a fairer, greener and more digital future for recovery. Under the theme ‘Together for Recovery’, more than 300 sessions, including debates with high-profile officials, regional and local representatives, an inspiring Citizens’ Dialogue, various workshops as well as an Award for outstanding young journalists, celebrated the EU values of cohesion and solidarity.

Taking place in a hybrid format, with sessions both physical and virtual, the 19th EU Regions Week had one main mission: highlighting the role of EU investments in the recovery from the pandemic and in facing common challenges. The event kicked off with a press conference with Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) and Elisa Ferreira, Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, who underlined that “Cohesion Policy was one of the first responders in the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by the core value of EU solidarity”.

The second annual local and regional barometer was presented by Apostolos Tzitzikostas, followed by a debate with members of the European Committee of the Regions. The report confirmed that the pandemic related measures put at risk regional and local finances, resulting in a 180 billion budget cut for local and regional authorities across Europe. At the same time, 1 in 3 local and regional politicians want regions and cities to become more influential in EU policy-making on health issues.

Unless we measure the state of our regions and cities, we cannot understand the state of our Union” said Apostolos Tzitzikostas, President of the European Committee of the Regions. “Only by taking the pulse of our communities, we can decide how effective the EU has been on the ground, and what the EU needs to do to help its people”.

Further taking stock of the EU cohesion policy response to the coronavirus pandemic as well as informing the general public, various workshops touched upon life before and after the pandemic, including explanations regarding the role of regions and cities for a Green Transition, the Cohesion Policy 2021-2027 and NextGenerationEU, as well as the CRII, CRII+, React-EU support packages for regional and local healthcare services and equipment.

Young journalists were also invited to take part in the EU Regions Week 2021, getting the opportunity to debate with Elisa Ferreira at the Citizens’ Dialogue. In the Youth4Regions programme for aspiring journalists, Irene Barahona Fernandez from Spain and Jack Ryan from Ireland won the 2021 Megalizzi-Niedzielski prize for aspiring journalists.

About the event

The European Week of Regions and Cities (#EURegionsWeek) is the largest EU-wide event on regional development. It is co-organised by the European Commission and the European Committee of the Regions.

In total, more than 12 000 participants and 900 speakers joined the 4-day event either physically or online, showing engagement in all corners of EU society – from our vibrant youth to our high-profile officials, local and regional representatives, academic experts and professional specialists, displaying a common readiness to tackle what the future holds, together.

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EU Politics

EU and Qatar sign landmark aviation agreement

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The European Union and the State of Qatar today signed a comprehensive air transport agreement, upgrading rules and standards for flights between Qatar and the EU. The agreement sets a new global benchmark by committing both sides to fair competition, and by including social and environmental protection. The signing means new opportunities for consumers, airlines and airports in Qatar and the EU.

Qatar is an increasingly important aviation partner for the EU. It was the 15th largest extra-EU market in 2019 with 6.3 million passengers travelling between the EU and Qatar. Ensuring open and fair competition for air services between both is therefore crucial, also for routes between the EU and Asia.

Adina Vălean, Commissioner for mobility and transport, said: “This agreement, the first one between the EU and the Gulf region, is a global benchmark for forward-looking aviation agreements. It is testimony to our shared commitment to economically, socially and environmentally sustainable aviation, based on a modern framework covering fair competition and closer cooperation on social and environmental matters. This agreement will bring new opportunities, more choice and higher standards for passengers, industry and aviation workers.”

Today’s agreement creates a level playing field that is expected to result in new air transport opportunities and economic benefits for both sides:

  • All EU airlines will be able to operate direct flights from any airport in the EU to Qatar and vice versa for Qatari airlines.
  • EU airports in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands will be subject to a gradual build-up of capacity until 2024. For more details on this, see the Q&A.
  • Strong provisions on open and fair competition will guarantee a level playing field.
  • The parties recognised the importance of social matters, agreed to cooperate on these and to improve their respective social and labour laws and policies as per their international commitments.

The agreement will facilitate people-to-people contacts and expand commercial opportunities and trade. Going beyond traffic rights, the EU-Qatar agreement will provide a single set of rules, high standards and a platform for future cooperation on a wide range of aviation issues.

Background

Qatar is a close aviation partner for the European Union; more than 6 million passengers travelled between the EU and Qatar per year under the existing 26 bilateral air transport agreements with EU Member States prior to the pandemic. While direct flights between most EU Member States and Qatar have already been liberalised by those bilateral agreements, none of them include provisions on fair competition, or social and environmental issues, which the Commission considers essential for a modern aviation agreement.

In 2016, the European Commission obtained authorisation from the Council to negotiate an EU-level aviation agreement with Qatar, which started on 4 March 2019. While the agreement still needs to be ratified by the parties before formally entering into force, it will start being applied from today’s signature.

Similar EU comprehensive air transport agreements have been signed with other partner countries, namely the United States, Canada, the Western Balkans, Morocco, Georgia, Jordan, Moldova, Israel and Ukraine. Further air transport agreements with Armenia and Tunisia are expected to be signed in the coming weeks.

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EU Politics

Sakharov Prize 2021: the finalists

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The 2021 finalists for the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought are Afghan women, Jeanine Áñez and Alexei Navalny

The 2021 finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought are Afghan women, Jeanine Áñez and Alexei Navalny.

Meet this year’s finalists of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, who were chosen at a joint meeting of the foreign affairs and development committees on 14 October:

  • Afghan women, represented by 11 human rights activists
  • Jeanine Áñez, Bolivian politician
  • Alexei Navalny, Russian activist and political prisoner


Afghan women

Under the previous Taliban regime, women experienced forced marriage, high maternity mortality, low literacy, forced virginity tests and couldn’t travel without a man. Following the Taliban’s return to power, women are again excluded from government and education and their rights and freedoms are threatened. The women, who are nominated for their brave fight for equality and human rights, are:

  • Shaharzad Akbar – chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)
  • Mary Akrami – head of the Afghan Women’s Network
  • Zarifa Ghafari – mayor of Maidan Shar since 2018
  • Palwasha Hassan – activist and the director of Afghan Women Educational Centre (AWEC)
  • Freshta Karim – founder of a mobile library and an advocate for education and learning
  • Sahraa Karimi – first female president of the Afghan state film company
  • Metra Mehran – women empowerment and education advocate and co-founder of the Feminine Perspectives Movement
  • Horia Mosadiq – human and women’s rights activist
  • Sima Samar – human rights advocate, former Minister of Women’s Affairs and former chair of Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission
  • Habiba Sarabi – member of the negotiating team of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
  • Anisa Shaheed – political reporter


Jeanine Áñez

Jeanine Áñez is a Bolivian politician who became the interim president of her country in November 2019, after alleged electoral fraud by incumbent Evo Morales. In November 2020, after free and fair elections there was a peaceful transfer of power. However, on 13 March 2021 she was arrested on charges of “terrorism, sedition and conspiracy”. Accused of plotting a coup d’état against Morales, she has been imprisoned ever since.

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny is a Russian opposition politician, anti-corruption activist and major political opponent of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Known through his LiveJournal blog, YouTube and Twitter accounts, where he has millions of followers Navalny came to international prominence by organising demonstrations, running for office and advocating reforms against corruption in Russia, Putin and his government. In August 2020, while on a trip to Siberia, he was poisoned. He spent months recovering in Berlin, but returned to Moscow in January 2021 where he was arrested. In February he was sentenced to 2½ years in prison. Now incarcerated in a high-security penal colony, he went on a 23-day hunger strike in April to protest the lack of medical care. In June 2021, a Russian court banned Navalny’s regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

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