Medicine, food and pesticides: three pressing EU issues overshadowed by the Ukraine war

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February was, without a doubt, a global turning point. It has forced the EU to rethink its approach to international security as a consequence of far-reaching geopolitical shifts in its near abroad, and beyond. Given the profoundness of these changes, it is wholly understandable that Brussels – and national governments – have been preoccupied with managing the effects of Ukraine war as it develops, as well as lingering consequences of the last year’s headline crisis, the Covid pandemic.

However, while Ukraine has topped the agenda, that doesn’t mean that other policy fields have stopped in their tracks. In fact, politics has been going on as usual, and here are three topics that have been flying under the radar this year.

Disaster spelt by the Medical Devices Regulation (MDR)

The MDR came into effect in May 2021 with the intent to standardise the rules regarding the sale of medical devices and their accessories in the European Union. It also obliges manufacturers to resubmit their medical devices to for certification, a stipulation that turned out to be the policy’s Achilles heel.

As it turns out, the sudden onslaught of devices needing to be registered and assess have been overwhelming the already strained capacities of medical device authorities. According to the Medical Device Coordination Group (MDCG), 85% of the 500,000 devices registered under the old regulatory regime have still not received new licenses (as of August 2022), meaning they cannot be used across the EU.

This has caused a massive shortage of life-saving medical devices, including a range of special devices for the treatment of newborn babies with congenital heart problems. The shortages are exacerbated by the fact that many manufacturers have opted to leave the EU market rather than to deal with the extra bureaucracy as a consequence of a “deceptively time-consuming” application process and internally contradictory equivalency requirement imposed by the MDR.

Spooked by these developments, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides recently announced to propose amendments to the MDR. However, it is unlikely that any fundamental changes will come about anytime soon, only increasing the threat of another public health crisis at arguably one of the worst moments in time.

Ending Nutri-Score’s “totalitarianism”?

It is unlikely that anyone would have ever expected the debate about front-of-pack (FOP) labels to be led with such fiery passion, yet after years of wrangling over Nutri-Score, the rift between its supporters and detractors is growing.

While Nutri-Score has been staunchly supported by the French government, the traffic light system has long been criticised for its “flawed” algorithm, which has been known to award Nesquik chocolate powder a green A rating while marking antioxidant-rich olive oil with a measly orange C. Such undeniably bizarre ratings may have contributed to what appears to a turning tide in the debate: if Nutri-Score was previously the default choice for an EU-wide nutrition label, the increased pressure of recent months has seen the European Commission make a surprising U-turn. DG SANTE’s Claire Bury left little room for doubt about the system’s future when she remarked that “It won’t be Nutri-Score,” on the occasion of the Food Summit in Brussels.

This statement must have come as a relief to those arguing against Nutri-Score’s viability, particularly Italy. Italian food scientist have accused the French label to be not only reductionist but infantilising as well, as its prescriptive nature treats “citizens like children.” This sentiment was reiterated at a recent event in Brussels, where, in a heated discussion, co-founder of sustainable nutrition consultancy Competere Pietro Paganini argued that Nutri-Score removed any room for consumers to exercise critical thinking and personal choice, liking it to “basically a government totalitarian policy.”

The escalating debate shows just how polarised things are as the EU prepares to make its final FOP decision in 2023.

Commission buckles on pesticides

The Farm to Fork (F2F) policy is one of the EU’s flagship initiatives as part of the EU Green Deal – a massive political effort to make the EU more sustainable and greener. A main target of F2F is to slash the use of chemical and hazardous pesticides by 50% respectively come 2030, a very ambitious effort with many detractors, including the Member States.

In November, Politico reported that several EU countries had been pushing back against the Commission’s plans, perhaps not surprisingly, given that rising food prices and fertilizer as a result of the Ukraine war have placed European food security at unpreceded peril. In the face of this opposition, the Commission had already made several concession to Member States by watering down the legislation, meaning that the continued push against it is nothing short of a “crushing defeat” for the Commission’s department of health and food safety, according to one diplomat.

Indeed, EU poicy maker had at first been rather steadfast in their defence of the policy, with Kyriakides having pushed back against concerns raised by 10 member states raised in a non-paper during the summer. Yet clear attempts to de-escalate followed last month, when EU agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski admitted that “It’s hard to strike the right balance between obligations to reduce emissions, to reduce the use of pesticides in the member states and how it should be distributed.”

It is evident that EU members are not likely to change their stance on the issue amid the war in Ukraine, and so this battle – just like the other ones mentioned above – are likely to drag on long into 2023 – and possibly beyond.

Image credit: Andrew Gustar/Flickr

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