WHO needs whom? A problematic cooperation between the EU and WHO Regional Office for Europe (WHO EURO)

Dr Marta Hoffman |

Dr Marta Hoffman is an assistant professor at Jagiellonian University and, subsidised by EUHealthGov, participated in the 2022 annual conference of the European Consortium for Political Research’s Standing Group on European Union. Below, Marta summarises the core argument made in her presentation, which addressed the relationship between the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe (WHO EURO) and the European Union (EU).

Does the EU still need the World Health Organization? Is the WHO well equipped to bear the pandemic challenge in the European region? And what is the role of the EU and its agencies in formulating European response to future pandemics? My short presentation focused on these questions, which are at the core of WHO activities during the pandemic of Covid-19. Unexpectedly, many anti-Covid initiatives led by WHO EURO were very similar, if not the same, to those led by the EU. With theoretical help offered by the so called ‘role theory’ I argue that the EU as well as WHO EURO can be characterised, firstly, by the fact that they occupy a specific position within global health aspect of international relations (IR), which means that they have a specific place in the anarchic structure of IR. Secondly they behave in accordance with a specific scenario (included in their founding documents) which can be understood as rules of behaviour resulting from expectations of their crucial partners. Thirdly, they perform a role which comprises role scenario with international reality which means that they simply adjust the rules included in the scenario to real problems which they deal with. I have observed that whilst the positions of both actors in global health determine their leadership roles, their role scenarios indicate that they should be more of a support towards countries. The interesting thing is that the actual performance during the Covid-19 crisis were quite far away from this ideal. The European Commission, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the European Medicines Agency shared the roles of leaders in pandemic preparedness and response whereas WHO EURO, depending on the part of the Region, played a role of a leader, collaborator or a supporter. In the EU Region WHO EURO’s engagement has met with quite a decisive approach of the EU whereas the rest of the non-EU member states of the Region had to rely solely on the WHO guidelines and expertise. Thus, I argue that the lack of clarity of roles performed by the WHO EURO could have contributed to the imbalance between the level of pandemic preparedness and response in the Eastern part of the Region. Due to the sovereign rights of states to declare their membership in WHO Regions and the lack of possibility to change the role scenario, the only reasonable solution is a reorientation of WHO EURO’s policy and to choose between two possible roles. The first (an ‘innovative health partnership’) means that WHO would opt for being an advocate of non-EU states in the Region and helped them in preparing for another pandemic challenge whereas the second (a ‘transmission belt’) means that WHO EURO would step back from its engagement and focus on representing of WHO’s interests in the Region. In my view the former option would be more beneficial for the cohesion of European health governance regarding the war in Ukraine and its impact for public health systems in the Region. The choice is in WHO’s hands.