Belgian organisation "Action Platform for Health and Solidarity" organised a conference in the Belgian Senate to debate the impact of European trade policy on public health from a global perspective. This intervenes in a context in which the free trade agreements the European Union is negotiating with countries in the South can threaten the right to health.
The Belgian Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence organised a conference on the impact of European trade policy on health in the South. The Committee was chaired by Marleen Temmerman.
The motivating factor for organising the conference was the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and the Cariforum countries (Caribbean ex-colonies), which was to be submitted to the Belgian federal parliament for ratification later this year. The agreement is believed to impose serious consequences for public health in Cariforum countries.
EU trade policy priorities
Through bilateral trade agreements, the EU tries to challenge its trade partners’ regulations which are a barrier for European businesses. Therefore, bilateral trade agreements always include a clause arguing that domestic regulation must be “least trade distorting”. These kinds of provisions put trade above public interests, such as public health, environmental protection or education.
Impact of free trade agreements on public health
1. Free trade agreements`impact on the social determinants of health - trade liberalisation has an effect on the underlying factors of health, such as employment, food security, income and inequality;
2. Free trade agreements`impact on government budget - trade liberalisation also has an effect on public finances. Often a significant part of government revenue in poor countries comes from customs tariffs by imposing import and export duties;
3. Liberalisation of health care - the increasing international trade in health care services takes different forms: health care workers go work abroad, foreign investors target hospitals and insurance companies search for new markets. In addition, more and more countries try to attract consumers from different countries through so-called health tourism;
4. Stronger intellectual property rights`impact on affordability of medicines - the price of medicines is not only a crucial factor in the health budget but also a determinant for the level of health care.
There are multiple ongoing negotiations between the European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade and developing countries, such as:
Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs): with Central Africa, the SADC countries (Southern Africa), West Africa, the countries of the Eastern African Community, Eastern and Southern Africa, the countries of the Pacific;
Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South-East Asian countries (ASEAN). Negotiations with the region have been blocked following concerns from third countries. As an alternative, the European Commission is now negotiating with individual countries, starting with Singapore and Vietnam;
Association Agreements with countries from Central America, conclusion expected in May 2010;
FTA with India. The EC is hoping to conclude this agreement in 2010;
FTA with Mercosur. Negotiations have been blocked for now.
EPA with the Cariforum countries. Currently waiting for ratification at the national parliaments of the EU (for information: this conference was organised on the eve of the Belgian Parliament ratification);
Association Agreement with Colombia and Peru.
Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) intending to combat counterfeit goods. In practice it pursues a multilateral framework for the enforcement of intellectual property rights.
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