Prudence often pays off
Research and health in the Commission’s Work Programme.
‘A New Start’. This is what the European Commission (EC) called its Work Programme (WP) for 2015. It is a modest programme, with only 23 new initiatives, breaking with the former practice of a hyper-active bureaucracy, frequently pressured by more or less hidden interests. The new EC focuses instead on disseminating and implementing legislation already in force, cutting red tape and with a strict application of subsidiarity. A sense of pragmatism and a sense of pursuit of short-term goals prevails, as the EC admits that has «selected the initiatives where there is the most pressing need for action, and where (it) can deliver quickly».
Horizon 2020 and the European Group on Ethics
Research and innovation and the public health policy fields are no exception to this new approach. The new Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, clearly expressed that his priorities will be the implementation of Horizon 2020 and the European Research Area, in order to «deliver». Priority 3 of the WP (‘A Resilient Energy Union…’) encompasses an initiative on a ‘Strategic Framework for the Energy Union’ which involves «decarbonizing the energy mix and promoting research and innovation in the energy field» in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Of relevance from this perspective will be the research on Synthetic Biology in the ambit of Horizon 2020 and necessarily in conjunction with Priority 1 (‘A New Boost for Jobs, Growth and Investment’) and the legislative initiative on the ‘The Investment Plan for Europe’.
On the other hand, Priority 4 (‘Deeper and fairer internal market…’) involves helping company innovation, also through the Horizon 2020 programme. It is only natural that the pharmaceutical industry, for example, plays a relevant role in this context as a research-intensive industry and one of the EU’s largest exporters. A clear challenge here will be to avoid compromising on ethical standards; the European Group on Ethics, the advisory body to the EC whose mandate will be renewed this year, being called to play a key role. Moreover, one has to commend Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukatis, for his expressed will to see a round table organized on the controversial issue of embryo-destructive research (research on human embryonic stem cells).
Genetically Modified Organisms and the challenges on the External Plan
With regard to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), 2015 begins with the long awaited approval by the European Parliament of the draft Directive allowing Member States to restrict or ban in their territories GMOs authorised at EU level. But the EC now wants to go further. Priority 10 (‘A Union of Democratic Change’) includes the review of the GMO decision-making process and the EC’s current legal obligation to authorize GMOs even when a majority of Member States is opposed. However, this will certainly hamper the negotiations between the EU and the USA in the context of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), increasing divergence in a field that is already rather contentious.
Also on the external plan, coinciding with the negotiations to replace the Millennium Development Goals, 2015 was declared the European Year of Development. Understandably, the EC wants to play a leading role in these negotiations and, within Priority 9 (‘A Stronger Global Actor’), a Communication on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is foreseen. During his parliamentary hearing, Commissioner Neven Nimica also recalled that the Cotonou agreement between the EU and the ACP countries will soon be reviewed, with a public consultation on the topic being expected. Special monitoring is needed for the link that might be envisaged here between maternal health and so-called ‘safe abortion’.
«This time things are different»…
… pledges the Commission. For a start, it indeed presented a Work Programme that is modest in ambition and in its reforms; and this is true also in the fields of research and innovation and of public health, where the competence of the EU is anyway rather limited and where some relevant cultural and ethical differences among Member States prevail.
But less can be more. This programme may well represent an opportunity to regain «citizens’ trust in the European Project» and to overcome «citizen’s scepticism about [the Commission’s] work». It is still the Commission who says it! Expectations are therefore high that such political realism will pay off and this will become, indeed, a ‘new start’.