In November, the European Commission published its Annual Growth Survey 2017 (AGS), a key document setting out the main EU economic priorities for the coming year. The AGS kickstarts the annual cycle of the European Semester Process and will be followed by the publication of the Country Reports, assessing economic and social priorities for each country in February.
Despite economic objectives figuring at the top of the AGS, there is a stronger social dimension compared to previous years, including on aspects of health policy. For example, the call to promote social investment (policies which strengthen people’s skills and capacities and support them to participate fully in employment and social life) more broadly, including in healthcare, childcare, housing support and rehabilitation services is a central point in the document. The Commission notes the importance of health policies in supporting and reinforcing social safety nets and active inclusion strategies, through preventive, but also curative and rehabilitation policies. National governments are urged to continue to reform their health systems, ensuring universal access to public health and healthcare services.
However, a number of challenges remain. Social investments are still under-prioritised in the countries hardest hit by the crisis and are subject to stricter fiscal surveillance. Better policies and the combination of EU funds as suggested by the Commission could be paired with greater flexibility under the Stability and Growth Pact, to make sure social investments reach people where they are most needed. As things stand now, social investments are more likely to be realised in richer countries with stronger administrative capacity.
A clear emphasis of the AGS is on inclusive labour markets and subsequent concern is raised in relation to those who have to leave their jobs for health reasons. In this context it would have been useful to note that levels of employment in the EU are substantially impacted by the prevalence of chronic diseases. The latest OECD Health at a Glance Europe 2016 Report calls for greater efforts to prevent chronic diseases among the working age population and for better integration between health and employment policies to reduce the detrimental impacts of ill-health on the labour market. The burden of non-communicable chronic diseases also remains a key reason for health disparities within Europe, with a strong divide between East and West. The European Union’s commitment to upward convergence should take note of this daunting reality and step up efforts to close the sizeable health gap persisting in Europe today.
Policy Coordinator for EU Semester and Social Pillar Project Manager FRESHER