On 26 and 27 March, the Federal Public Service Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment (FPS Health) organized a High-level Conference on the Future EU Health Union in the context of the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The Belgian presidency falls at the end of the mandate of the current EU Commission in the crucial period of European elections. It is therefore uncertain if and how high health will be placed on the EU agenda in the coming years. Under the slogan ‘A Europe that cares, prepares and protects’, the aim of the two-day conference was to reflect on the future EU health agenda. More than 300 participants, including the European Commissioner for health, ministers, state secretaries, delegations from member states and EU institutions, stakeholders and academics attended this conference, attesting major interest for the topics on the agenda.

Issues discussed spanned from health workforce issues and prevention from disease to medicine supplies and preparedness for crisis.  One thing became clear: the current and upcoming challenges in health policy are important and shared by many EU member states and stakeholders.

Health workforce shortages and mismatches in skills and skill mixes currently exist in all countries. During the conference, calls for a Health Workforce Strategy at European level were voiced. Such a strategy would need to be linked to health systems transformation and improvement of its resilience. It should encompass planning, recruitment, training, working conditions and professional development, and an evaluation of the impact of existing EU legal frameworks on national health workforce strategies.

Also, participants exchanged on vulnerabilities in the supply chain of critical medicines, intensified by shortages and external dependencies. Ultimately, recommendations emphasized continued efforts through initiatives like the Critical Medicines Alliance and the creation of a legal framework to address supply chain vulnerabilities, referred to as Critical Medicines Act. Additionally, different possible approaches on stockpiling of medicines in the EU were discussed. Challenges related to this stockpiling, and how this connects to the voluntary solidarity mechanism, were highlighted.

Discussions on strengthening non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention within the context of Europe's Beating Cancer Plan focused on the health problems linked to alcohol consumption. The importance of accurate alcohol labelling (labelling of ingredients and nutrient content on alcoholic beverages) was highlighted. As these are legislative actions announced under Europe’s Beating Cancer plan, a clear call for continued and accelerated action on the prevention pillar of the plan was voiced.

Crisis preparedness was addressed through a thought-provoking hypothetical scenario of a large flooding. Decision-making processes at EU level in the area of health crisis management were discussed. It was agreed that the  European Health Union already introduced numerous valuable new initiatives, but many unanswered questions remain. There was general consensus among the participants that a coherent, transparent and effective European framework for health emergency preparedness and response is essential.

Finally, the importance of investing in health was an overarching theme in discussions. The EU offers various funding opportunities that can be used for health investments notably to strengthen and transform health systems. While the establishment of an EU Health Resources Hub has the potential to support Member States in undertaking health investments and reforms with impact on the ground, we could also further explore how to optimise the strategic use of existing EU funds for health.

As the conference came to an end, officials and experts recalled the accomplishments of the EU in the field of health as well as the challenges ahead. The High-level Conference on the Future EU Health Union offered avenues for reflection on how to overcome them. Different perspectives on how to strengthen the EU Health Union were expressed. However, the overall message was clear: the health and well-being of citizens must remain high on the EU agenda of the next European Commission.