Update – 9:21pm: Just departing Brussels for Manchester after a productive day of meetings in the European Commission and the European Parliament.
I set out Labour’s case for an exemption for the NHS – building on the precedent of the Canadian Treaty – and was encouraged by the response. My sense is that this is an argument we can win although Labour must maintain the pressure throughout the European election campaign.
Three things became clear throughout the course of the day.
First, it was obvious that our own government – and UKIP – have not been making the case for the NHS and therefore it was important that I went. Last year, Michael Fallon said in answer to a private question: “the Government has not sought to exclude health services from the scope of the TTIP negotiations”. The Tories and the Lib Dems are clearly sticking to their vow of silence and not deviating from this approach.
Second, the European Commission is clear that a problem only arises if a member state chooses to open up their health system to full competition. That is why Labour’s commitment to repeal the Health and Social Care Act 2012 is an essential part of any solution.
Third, given that negotiations will enter a crucial phase in May, our chances of protecting the NHS in the Treaty are directly linked to the European election results and the political make-up of the new Parliament. That’s why we must work hard to ensure this issue features prominently in the campaign and all parties challenged to set out their position on it.
So, all in all, a good and worthwhile day. We have been promised more detail in the weeks ahead, but we leave with cautious grounds for hope that our NHS can be secured in the Treaty, if not by the actions of the Tory-led coalition.
In Washington and Brussels, months of high-level talks are coming to a close on a Treaty which could have profound implications for the NHS. But given the silence from our government, you could be forgiven for not knowing. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both failed to respond to repeated requests to call for an exemption for the NHS from the emerging EU-US trade Treaty. Presumably this is because, as it stands, it supports the government’s policy of opening up the health service to greater privatisation. In fact, it could make it unstoppable.
This is why. By passing the Health & Social Care Act in 2012, the coalition voluntarily placed the NHS in the spotlight of EU competition law. If you lay on top of that a new EU-US Treaty with no NHS exemption, US private health giants will have a green light to throw their weight around challenging contract decisions.
It is clear that voters who want to preserve the character of our NHS can’t depend on Cameron and Clegg. But what about UKIP? It would seem that Nigel Farage is, for once, keeping his mouth shut. That’s probably because his last manifesto called for the NHS to be put out to tender. He likes to talk about defending the national interest but unlike 99 per cent of the population, he clearly doesn’t see the NHS as part of that.
So, with this Tory-Lib Dem-UKIP conspiracy of silence, it is left to Labour to stand up for the NHS in Europe. My Labour colleagues David Martin MEP and John Healey MP have been fighting hard for an exemption. Today I will travel to Brussels to reinforce the Labour message: let the UK protect the NHS from privatisation by taking it off the negotiating table.
Labour’s request is not exceptional or unusual. It would simply bring the EU-US Treaty, which Labour supports in principle, in line with a similar agreements recently signed with Canada. Talks are now entering the crucial phase. As Europe goes to the polls in May, negotiators will be meeting for the next round of talks. The deal has almost been finalised but it has been done behind closed doors with the public kept in the dark.
That is why the forthcoming European elections are so important. They give people who care about the NHS a chance to send MEPs to Brussels who will argue for change to this agreement before it is finalised. And they give the British public the chance to remind David Cameron in no uncertain terms that he has never been given their permission to put the NHS up for sale.
The truth is Labour is the only party prepared to defend the NHS in Europe. That will be the clear message that our MEP candidates will take to the doorsteps in the coming weeks. I will post an update to this blog later today on the outcome of our meetings, including one with the European Commission Vice President Joaquin Almunia.
Andy Burnham is shadow health secretary