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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

HERA isn’t the hero Parliament wants — or the game-changer Council fears

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HERA isn’t the EU’s hero. 

The European Commission and various EU leaders long talked up the creation of a new agency that would rival the U.S. BARDA, which funneled billions to develop COVID-19 vaccines and therapies at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. 

This “European BARDA,” eventually named “HERA” for the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, was expected to fix the EU’s shortfalls should another pandemic arise. 

As the proposal became reality, the panglossian hopes HERA would become the EU’s savior turned out to be more of a myth. 

“We did not want to raise expectations,” Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said Thursday during a press conference that sometimes featured more talk about Greek mythology than specific plans. “We would not pretend to spin this as a game-changer or as a big booster. But … we think that it’s a new structure with clear added value.”

HERA will not be a standalone agency, but rather housed in the Commission; it would be run by a board with representatives from each EU country, similar to the EU’s vaccination steering committee; and it won’t even go to the European Parliament for approval. In reality, HERA will exist as a kind of more concrete version of everything the Commission has already been doing throughout the pandemic. 

That’s fine by the EU executive, which pointed repeatedly to its vaccination strategy as proof of what the EU can do when in charge — even on an ad-hoc basis. 

“The reality is that we managed despite the Cassandras and the prophets of doom, trying to convince Europeans that we would never make it,” Schinas said Thursday, holding aloft an April copy of the Economist that asked: “What has gone wrong?” 

“That’s what we were working against,” he said. He then showed a graphic demonstrating the EU vaccination rate exceeding that of the U.S.: “This is what we managed to achieve.”

Countries’ competence 

The Commission brought its lofty ideas down to earth for a reason: EU member nations. 

European countries were eager last year to boost the EU’s health powers, but then quickly became suspicious of the Commission’s specific, largely unrevolutionary European Health Union plans. They fought back against Brussels’ proposed auditing of countries for their pandemic preparedness, and didn’t want to allow the EU’s infectious disease agency to make non-binding recommendations.

Even German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who welcomed the HERA proposal as a step toward “strong and powerful health authorities in the EU” in a statement to POLITICO on Thursday, focused on an upcoming EU power battle.

Spahn said the proposal launches a discussion about how “we want to use HERA to further strengthen the structures for preparing for and tackling cross-border health threats in the EU.” He added: “In doing so, we should also clearly identify what points have European added value through cooperation and what can be better done at the national level.”

But in catering to the Council, the Commission angered its biggest ally on the Health Union files: the Parliament. MEPs were angry about what some viewed as a lack of ambition.  

“It is not an agency, but an administrative unit within the Commission.” German MEP Tiemo Wölken tweeted. “That lags far behind the announcements.”

Wölken and other MEPs also called out the use of Article 122, which cuts the Parliament out of HERA’s creation. The Commission pointed out that MEPs will have an observer on HERA’s board and get to vote on its budget. 

That was not enough for some. French Green MEP Michèle Rivasi tweeted: “The [Commission] reduces the role of the European Parliament to a simple vote on the budget. What a curious conception of democracy.”

Show me the money

Whether HERA is a standalone agency or the Parliament gets a sign-off on the money is contentious — but what really matters is the cash. 

At face value, its budget is €6 billion for the next six years — close to the around $1.5 billion the U.S. BARDA has in non-crisis times. 

That’s only a “start,” Asha George, the executive director of the American Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, wrote in a statement. To be successful, entities like HERA and BARDA need “long-term commitment of funding and other governmental support, even in the absence of a pandemic.”

The bipartisan commission recommended the U.S. spend $10 billion a year for 10 years to eliminate the threats of pandemics — “the same holds true for the EU,” George wrote. 

The Commission is on the right track. President Ursula von der Leyen announced a health preparedness mission with €50 billion between now and 2027 — although this proved to be a bit less impressive when pressed for details. 

While HERA’s actual budget will be €6 billion over six years, another €24 billion from other EU budget items will go toward health emergencies. Plus, there will be €20 billion from EU countries’ existing plans to improve national pandemic preparedness, such as France’s proposal to create its own national BARDA-like agency.

All this money without much transparency or accountability worries MEPs and civil society groups.

“Essentially HERA is just a formal seal on what the European Commission has been doing since the start of the pandemic,” said Global Health Advocates’ Marcin Rodzinka-Verhelle. “So let’s make it clear that the European Commission just legalizes consistent lack of transparency, cutting out the European Parliament and gives a driver’s seat for the health industry.”

Merlin Sugue contributed to this story.

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