John Middleton: Brexiting health—the UK will miss out on prosperity, public health and planetary health

The new President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, took up office on 3 December 2019. She has set out a strong programme to improve and protect the health of the public and the environment in Europe. Following the recent Brexit driven general election, the United Kingdom stands to miss out.  

Von Der Leyen is the first woman to be elected to the European Commission as President. She is a doctor, with a Master’s in public health, as well as a politician with a proven track record.

Her Green Deal proposes that Europe become the first climate neutral continent by 2050, to reduce carbon emissions by over 50% by 2030, and be a world leader on tackling plastic pollution. A Sustainable Europe Investment plan will support investment over the next decade, overseen by a European Climate Bank. There are vital plans for the protection of the natural environment and human health through a biodiversity strategy, sustainable food strategy and protection of rural areas. Her proposals for “an economy that works for people,” commit to a fair minimum wage, improving labour conditions and provisions to help achieve gender equality. 

Almost 25 million children under 18 are at risk of poverty or social exclusion and she is putting proposals in place that seek to break the cycle of poverty. The proposals are in line with Michael Marmot’s recommendations. The European Social Fund will improve the quality and accessibility of early childhood education and care systems and tackle youth unemployment. Significantly, she proposes applying the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the annual goals in the European “Semester”—the annual appraisal of progress by the EU. She also intends to enhance digital education and skills and triple the European Erasmus budget.  

Von der Leyen recognises Europe’s responsibility to reduce the stimulus for migration and trafficking by tackling root economic, environmental and conflict related causes and enhancing relationships with African countries. There will be a new pact on migration, and enhanced Border and Coast Guard services. The European public prosecutor will have a stronger role in tackling cross border terrorism. 

The UK faces a clear danger of being left behind on many actions which will determine the future well being of Europeans. It is already clear that we are being sidelined on research. Our major trading partner, the European Union, will call the shots in future trade deals. Our trading partners outside Europe may well go to the bigger bloc first for the deals they need and there is no guarantee that we can just walk into “World Trade Organisation conditions”  We may miss out on revenue from fair digital taxes and corporation taxes which require international political consensus and muscle. Outside of the EU, our burden of migration may increase. If we are not working collaboratively as part of EU provisions, and if we default on our share of the costs of the deal with Turkey to hold Syrian refugees, there will be no incentive for EU countries to prevent migration to our shores. 

Doctors should welcome Von Der Leyen’s proposals which give a glimpse of medical and public health insight applied to public policy. They show the possibility to develop an international political programme which has health at the heart of all policies. Her agenda, if successful, could reduce inequalities in health, and economic and educational opportunity. Her environmental proposals identify major challenges which need to be addressed if we are to achieve the necessary global limit to a 1.5 degree temperature. 

“Where there is no vision the people perish’, say Proverbs 29-18. There could be no more stark example of the truth of this than between the political vision of Brexit Britain and the European Commission programme. The catastrophe of a No Deal Brexit is still a possibility. The harms likely from this have been widely discussed. A hard Irish border would damage health and health service collaboration. 

During the election campaign, UK political parties paid inadequate attention to well being, social care, and environmental breakdown. On the day before the UK election, Von Der Leyen unveiled the EU plan for a new Green Deal to get Europe Carbon Neutral by 2050. The new UK government promises more police and punishment, more treatment for more disease, and yet is silent on the climate emergency. They would do well to look at the European Union programme and consider what we will miss out on: prosperity, public health and planetary health.

John Middleton, President of the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER)

Competing interests: None declared