EUREGHA appreciates the statements of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, made during her first State of the Union address on 16 September. “For me, it is crystal clear we need to build a stronger European Health Union. It is time to do that” – she said. As a network for regional and local health authorities in Europe, we are pleased to see that the European Commission has put health high on its agenda.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a global challenge, in which the European Union had to step up and work under extraordinary pressure with few tools and competences in the field of health.

In July 2020, we expressed our regrets related to the outcome of the European Council to sacrifice an ambitious budget to sustain health and research. We believe that the commitments made by Ursula von der Leyen show the first step towards the restoration of this EU4Health programme and helps to make it fit for the future. We hope that new plans are supported by sufficient funding to act efficiently and equally in all the regions.

We support Von der Leyen in her commitment to empowering the EMA and ECDC: “As a first step, we will propose to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and our Center for Disease Prevention and Control”. We are furthermore optimistic about her plans to “create an Agency for Biomedical Advanced Research and Development to support the capacity to respond to cross-border emergencies”.

It is crucial to carefully review European health competences and we hope this matter will be one of the main pillars during the Conference on the Future of Europe. We believe, however, that it is paramount to focus on healthcare emergencies during this discussion and regard it separately from healthcare as a whole.

Ursula von der Leyen furthermore addressed how important it is to stimulate the digital transition of Europe, which goes hand in hand with healthcare system transformation. “It has not been possible to face this crisis without technology: this must help us understand how important a common plan for digital development is. Otherwise, we will continue to follow people who will set the standards for us, as has happened up until now”. As suggested by President von der Leyen, we need to recognize the crucial role of digital health technologies and artificial intelligence for a healthier European Union.

We uphold our purpose to improve the efficiency and quality of the healthcare systems in Europe, and we hope that stakeholders in the EU healthcare arena will be involved in the future of these plans outlined by the European Commission president. We are carefully optimistic that valuable lessons will be learnt from the COVID-19 crisis, which in the long run will deepen the integration of health policies in the European Union.