Is Britain healthier in or out of the EU?

What will be the impact of Brexit on health policy?

With British voters deciding on 23 June whether to remain in or leave the European Union, Burson-Marsteller hosted and moderated a debate on the issue.

The event, organised by ProEuropa, a grouping of Brussels-based Brits campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU, was addressed (in a personal capacity) by Nicola Bedlington, Secretary-General of the European Patients’ Forum (EPF) and Frédéric Destrebecq, Executive Director of the European Brain Council.

Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also addressed the meeting.

He has launched ‘HealthierIn’, a campaign that offers to represent healthcare professionals supporting UK membership of the EU while putting forward health policy arguments for the UK staying in the EU.


What has the EU ever done for public health…?

Even though health remains predominantly a national competence, a number of EU initiatives are contributing to better and safer healthcare across the EU – and British patients and healthcare professionals have benefited considerably.

Pipette and Petri dish
EU actions to address societal challenges, as well as laws such as the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive and the Clinical Trials Regulation were seen as the most important EU initiatives by Destrebecq, Bedlington and McKee respectively.

What the EU has done for patients’ rights, ensuring in particular that transparency is built into the framework, is key.

Nicola Bedlington

The exchange of best practice and awareness-raising and coordination initiatives should not be underestimated, according to participants at the meeting. Improvements in health literacy and integrated care, for example, are important steps taken by the EU.

McKee referred to a recent study conducted by Eurocarers on cancer outcomes.

I imagine the ‘Leave’ camp would prefer if we were not aware that the UK has the worst cancer survival in Western Europe. Without the EU, such studies would simply not exist”, he said.

The promotion of research at EU level was also recognised by participants as bringing significant added value. The meeting was told that the UK would lose significantly should the ‘Leave’ campaign win.

Losing research funding was cited as one major problem, but the inability to take part in collaborative research consortia was considered even more of a problem.

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How can ‘Remain’ counter the pro-Brexit claims?

McKee said that the HealthierIn campaign contributes to informing citizens by checking and correcting the claims put forward by the ‘Leave’ camp.

One of the challenges faced by ‘Remain’ activists is both the lack of information and the misinformation received by British citizens.

Given the British people’s strong attachment to the National Health Service (NHS), arguments related to the positive impact of Brexit on healthcare services are particularly attractive to ‘swing voters’.

The argument is hotting up.

In response to a letter by 50 healthcare professionals suggesting that the UK leave the EU “to save the NHS”, 200 healthcare professionals and researchers wrote a response to highlight the net benefit of EU immigration to the sustainability of the NHS, and that the UK government – not the EU – would take decisions on privatisation of health services.

Brexit should carry a health warning.

Prof Martin McKee

HealthierIn also seeks to explain the EU decision-making system (described as “undemocratic” by the ‘Leave’ camp), the Commission’s efforts to increase transparency on the EU-US trade talks (TTIP), and the additional spending that would be incurred should the UK leave the single market and its common institutions (such as the European Medicines Agency and the European Food Safety Authority).


What will happen on 23 June?

British Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling, who attended the event, highlighted the long-term problem of the lack of information provided to the public and to political party activists. She said that this makes ‘doorstep’ conversations difficult.

People are desperate for information about the EU – they want to talk about it.

Jude Kirton-Darling

A number of factors will influence the vote on 23 June, and the ability of both camps’ to convince swing voters of the impact of ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’ on the NHS could play a significant part.

What will happen as of 24 June is even more unclear.

Should the UK vote to leave, what will the UK government try to negotiate? How will the remaining EU members respond to British demands? Will the UK incorporate the body of EU health and social law into its national legislation? And if so, how?

Referring to John Nash and Winston Churchill, Destrebecq highlighted the “risk of losing everything” and the need to believe in a “common (European) destiny”. At a time of crisis, questions marks about Europe reflect the difficulty of national systems to reform and address growing social and economic needs.

Whether or not member states should work together to find common solutions to tackle these challenges is one of the key questions behind the Brexit debate.

Words  Claudia Louati (Burson-Marsteller Brussels)
Photos  (c) European Union, 2016; (c) Thomas Kanga-Tona / Burson-Marsteller

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