How to make 2024 the EU’s year on global health

Katja Sergejeff and Pauline Veron argue that 2024 holds many opportunities for the EU to focus on global health and play a crucial role by supporting it through financing, trade, skills development and tech transfer. 

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    The COVID-19 pandemic is already fading into our collective memory, but global health remains a key (geo)political issue. For Europe, 2024 could be the year to assert its leadership and play a crucial role in global health. The year started on a promising note, with the Council finally adopting conclusions on the EU’s Global Health Strategy, pushing that health remains as a key priority for the international agenda. However, in recent years, despite health being a cornerstone of geopolitical influence, the EU’s attention and funding have turned to ‘hard’ sectors such as energy, the digital transition and transport. Only five out of 87 projects in the Global Gateway for 2024 focus on health. But there are plenty of opportunities to raise the political profile of health, and decisions made in 2024 can either hamper health as a priority or make it more central.

    In a context in which geopolitical considerations tend to overshadow everything else, and the EU increasingly pursues its own interests, taking leadership on global health can provide the EU with geopolitical influence by making it a more attractive partner. More than ever, the EU’s credibility as a value-based alternative to its geopolitical competitors relies on facilitating access to global public goods such as health. Not only can the EU support global health through financing but also through trade, skills development and tech transfer. The EU’s investment in social sectors is highly appreciated in partner countries and the support to health gives opportunities to advance other key priorities for the EU, such as the digital and green transitions, but also gender equality.

    A new leadership in the EU and the US can bring shifts towards right and conservative ideologies, which could put support to some health sectors at risk.

    2024 is a critical year for global health. The elections and new leadership in the EU and the US can bring shifts towards right and conservative ideologies, which could put support to some health sectors at risk and would likely bring an increased emphasis on market-based solutions and private investments over traditional development cooperation. However, the potential shifts in the US can also bring an opportunity for the EU to enhance its leadership in global health – provided it uses its full potential as a global health actor beyond filling financial gaps.

    This is a pivotal moment requiring a strategic push to keep global health as a central part of the EU's external action.

    How to make the case for health in the current geopolitical environment?

    Whether we like it or not, in the current geopolitical environment, making a stronger case for health will not fly unless there is a solid self-serving and geopolitical rationale behind it.

    Integrating health for global impact

    The EU needs to embed health in broader strategic priorities and partnerships. Aligning external action with internal priorities, such as the green and digital transitions, migration as well as security is crucial. The EU also needs to strengthen the links between health and strategic investment initiatives, as is done in the Global Gateway.

    Climate change is still taking centre stage in the EU’s foreign and development policy despite the recent backlash. Further recognising the links between climate and health and positioning the EU as a frontrunner (e.g. by ensuring it has the right expertise internally) could significantly push the global health agenda. Similarly, established connections between digital and health systems strengthening could be further scaled up.

    Regarding migration – a highly sensitive political issue – the current focus in Europe is very much on curbing arrivals. However, given the enormous shortages of health workers in the EU, any policy aiming at recruiting foreign healthcare staff should consider the impact on health systems in partner countries to avoid a health workforce brain drain. Balancing this with investments in domestic workforce development is key to align with the priorities and concerns of African countries.

    Leveraging the EU’s full potential

    While the EU is a significant funder of global health, its role extends far beyond external action to political and trade relations, research & innovation (R&I) as well as tech transfer.

    The EU needs to ensure that its policies, for instance on R&I and trade, do not undermine its global health objectives. Even better, upholding its commitment to global health through the transfer of health technologies and relevant expertise to partner countries, trade relations, and intellectual property debates could significantly increase the impact of the EU’s ODA spending on health. Positive examples of the EU facilitating tech transfer exist, for instance, in Senegal.

    These measures would indeed enhance the EU’s credibility by not only showing it acts seriously on the concerns of its partners but also that it can present a coherent offer instead of giving with one hand and taking it away with the other.

    The EU should embrace the opportunities in the months ahead to elevate health on the political agenda.

    Seizing the opportunities in 2024

    The EU institutions and member states should embrace the opportunities in the months ahead to elevate health on the political agenda. The Belgian EU presidency in this first half of 2024 can be instrumental in pushing health higher up on the EU's external action agenda and placing it among the top priorities of the future EU’s leadership. Belgium is focusing particularly on financing global health and Universal Health Coverage, as well as African health sovereignty.

    The new EU Commission leadership takes office later in the year, and their priorities will shape the Union's policy direction for the next five years. Having a Commission president and Commissioner for International Partnerships committed to the EU's global health leadership can have a significant impact in the years to come.

    The EU is also currently reassessing its funding priorities for the second half of its multiannual financial framework. This includes the mid-term review of multiannual indicative programmes in partner countries for 2024-2027. Although the current MFF revision deal is not encouraging for additional global health funding, health advocates should still strive to make a compelling case for health – that also speaks to the ‘non-converted’ – for the mid-term review of the EU's programming priorities.

    The Belgian presidency, civil society, and health advocates play a crucial role in shifting the narrative and reinforcing the business case for health. Health can be a valuable source of geopolitical clout. For the EU’s credibility, putting its money where its mouth is will be crucial.

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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