Since January 1st, Latvia holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU for the next six months. This post has seen its relevance reduced ever since the Treaty of Lisbon introduced a permanent President of the Council –currently the Polish Donald Tusk- but it remains nevertheless a good opportunity, especially for small member states, to be on the frontline.
This is particularly the case for a country like Latvia, which had until now remained in a discreet background since its entry into the EU. The Baltic country joined the EU in the last big wave of accession that took place in 2004 and is a member of the Eurozone since January 1st 2014.
Healthcare priorities for the first semester of 2015
Taking over the rotating Presidency of the Council from Italy for the first half of 2015, Latvia has summed up its priorities with the slogan “Competitive Europe, Digital Europe, Engaged Europe”; in other words, jobs for growth, a digital single market and a bigger role in foreign affairs. But besides from these top three issues, Latvia has also targeted other policy areas which it intends to work on during its mandate and in particular, the country boasts an ambitious agenda in healthcare for the next six months.
Guntis Belēvičs, Latvia’s health minister, presented a set of measures that his country intends to promote during the next six months last week before the ENVI committee of the European Parliament.
The top priorities are patient-centered healthcare and healthy lifestyle and the latter will focus mainly on nutrition policy for children and young people. This is in line with what Latvia announced last November at the Second International Conference of Nutrition of the United Nations’ FAO which took place in Rome, where Latvia’s health minister emphasized how the country wanted to highlight the problems of rising childhood obesity.
This topic will be the subject of a high level conference that will take place in Riga this week on healthy lifestyle, nutrition and physical activity for children and young people. The agenda is a comprehensive approach to healthy eating habits, the impact of school environment and schools food policy, physical activities and mobile applications, modern technologies and other innovative solutions.
With regards to this topic, it is worth mentioning that Latvia has already banned sweetened beverages, confectionery and other unhealthy snacks in schools and has set standards for school meals. Whereas it seems unlikely that new legislative measures can stem from such an event, it could be a way to pressure Member States to introduce similar standards and it will also serve as a reminder of the importance of keeping high nutrition standards when negotiating food policy with the United States in the framework of TTIP.
In any case, the presidency’s aim to address healthy lifestyle has already been welcomed by political heavyweights such as MEPs Françoise Grossetête (EPP), who has pointed out her preference for prevention and education to over-regulation.
Also in the field of healthcare, the Baltic country wants to boost the digital potential for health, and the issue will be discussed at the annual e-health week in May. The focus will be on patient-oriented healthcare, increase of patient aptitudes in using new technologies and innovations in eHealth and mHealth (mobile health). The Latvian Health minister clarified that the goal of this meeting is to raise awareness on the importance of citizens taking responsibility for their own health, since only with awareness can innovative solutions work. He has also hinted at the possibility of developing clusters, first with the other Baltic countries and Finland, Sweden and Denmark, and then extending it to the rest of Europe.
EU alcohol policy is also on the agenda for Minister Belēvičs. During his term, the Latvian presidency will not only follow the work of the EU committee on national alcohol, but it has also agreed to develop a paper on future actions. Some member states – including Luxembourg, which will take over the rotating Presidency as of 1st July 2015 – have already expressed their support to advance on this policy issue.
As for ongoing legislative dossiers, the Latvian presidency has announced it intends to reach an agreement with the Parliament on the draft legislation on medical devices and in vitro diagnostic medical devices, and to reach an early second agreement on the Regulation on psychoactive substances. Finally, regarding specific diseases, tuberculosis will be given major attention at the ministerial conference on tuberculosis and drug resistance in Riga next March, to be held by the EU with Eastern Partnership neighbours.