While the UK starts an introspective process of re-examing its relationship with the EU, and gears up for a referendum which may result in a complete withdrawal from the supranational body, in Brussels progress continues to be made on policies that promote and progress public health.
Despite fears that the proposal for a revision of the 2001 Tobacco Products Directive would be irrevocably delayed due to internal controversy within the European Commission, the new EU health commissioner published a finalised proposal in December.
The principle aim of the proposal is to discourage young people from using tobacco products. To that end, the proposal aims to ban the use of cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco (RYO), and smokeless tobacco products that contain flavours, and to make the use of large pictorial health warnings mandatory on cigarette packets. New measures will be introduced to regulate e-cigarettes and herbal products for smoking, which are becoming more popular in the UK.
To the disappointment of health campaigners, the introduction of plain packaging will remain optional for member states in “duly justified cases” thus falling short of the mandatory introduction of plain packaging as called for by the European Public Health Alliance, amongst others.
Reaction to the proposal was immediate with tobacconists and newsagents taking to the streets in Brussels on 22 January to express their opposition to the proposals. They claim that, if adopted, the text will increase counterfeiting and the parallel market. A claim that is roundly dismissed by the health sector.
The proposal is now being discussed in the European Parliament and EU Council of Ministers, and is expected to come into effect from 2016.
Meanwhile, progress is being made on proposals to revise the rules on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Following intense negotiations, the European Parliament internal market committee has agreed a set of compromise amendments to the original commission proposal.
The amendments strongly reflect lobbying that has been undertaken by UK health stakeholders and indeed by the UK government. The amendments protect the length of basic medical training in the UK, strengthen provisions for an alert mechanism for dangerous doctors, and allow competent authorities to undertake language assessments on EEA doctors. The adoption of the UK-advocated amendments demonstrates the importance of taking a proactive approach to European decision making and highlights the dangers of the UK disengaging from the EU process. It also demonstrates why resigning its EU membership in favour of a “free trade relationship,” such as that enjoyed by Norway and Switzerland, would be dangerous for the UK. As a condition of access to the single market, these two countries have to apply EU rules, yet do not have a voice in the elaboration of these rules.
The full plenary of MEPs will vote on a final text at the end of May.
One of the principal bug bears of the UK government and the wider Conservative party, the European Working Time Directive (EWTD), looks likely to remain unchanged following the failure of the EU social partners to reach agreement on a revision before the end of 2012.
Withdrawal from EWTD is a key government priority, as highlighted by David Cameron in his January speech on the future of Europe. Indeed the abolition of all EU social and employment policy is advocated by the so-called Fresh Start Project, an alliance of Conservative MPs, who published their manifesto to coincide with Cameron’s speech.
The failure of the social partner process means that the way is now open for the European Commission to publish fresh proposals to revise the Directive, thus providing the UK government with an opportunity to promote their abolitionist stance. It remains to be seen whether the UK will be able to convince its European partners of the necessity of abolishing a piece of legislation seen by many as critical to protecting the high standards of working conditions enjoyed by EU citizens.
Nicola While is an EU policy specialist.