The health priorities for the elections and civil society engagement were two core elements mentioned throughout the different sessions of the European Health Forum Gastein 2023 (EHFG). Specifically, it was agreed that public health should be a top priority in the elections. However, for that, a strong role for civil society is needed.
Health: the top priority on the agenda
With the COVID-19 pandemic, public health has been put on top of the political agenda. However, it is paramount that it remains a priority for the EU. On several issues addressed by the conference, speakers stressed the urgency to act. Particularly, the pressing healthcare workforce situation needs to be discussed in the elections debate, but also the overall pressure on our healthcare systems. Climate change, its impact on health and potential new pandemics, as well as the need to support the decarbonisation of healthcare systems were also among the key challenges discussed in Gastein.
To make public health a priority on the agenda for 2024 and beyond, the EU needs to have the necessary ambition in prioritising these issues. One way to do so, that was mentioned in several discussions, is to apply not only health (and environment) in all policies, but to make all policies work for health, and the environment. This ambition should be reflected in the next European Commission setting, with hinted calls from the EHFG audience for a dedicated Vice President on public health and wellbeing.
The need to support civil society
To ensure that health is high on the agenda, health civil society organisations need strengthened participation mechanisms and civic space. Civil society organisations play a central role in bringing expertise, raising awareness, delivering on EU health priorities and setting the agenda. Particularly, as mentioned by Dr Milka Sokolovic (EPHA), civil society organisations have a role to play in health diplomacy, to help communities directly, to understand their needs, and bring their voices in the public debate. Additionally, as discussed in another EHFG session, partnerships between civil society and actors such as national institutes of public health should be more systematic and could also be a key element in delivering public heath priorities.
Civil society can bring health forward on the agenda in the elections debate. However, it needs the capacity to do so. Particularly, health civil society need to be supported financially, in a sustainable manner. Funding for health policy was mentioned by speakers as a core element for health to be high on the agenda, but so is sustainable funding for civil society to deliver its role.
Specifically, the case of health civil society organisations is regrettable, as mentioned by EuroHealthNet’s Caroline Costongs in a session on EU4Health in all programmes. Indeed, she mentioned that, while programmes like EaSi provided operating grants for civil society on a multiannual basis, the operating grants in the EU4Health programme failed to do so. Therefore, health civil society face lack of certainty, preventing them from fully playing their role.
2024 will be a pivotal moment for EU public health policy. Ahead of the elections, EPHA has stressed the need for health to be given the priority it deserves. This has been outlined in EPHA’s manifesto, alongside calls to support (health) civil society, particularly through sustainable funding.