Europe's Health Commissioner: From The Good Friday Agreement To The Global Health Discussion

Friday, October 1, 2004 - 00:00

The Editor interviews David Byrne, European Union
Commissioner for Health and Consumer
Protection.

Editor: Commissioner Byrne, you were called to the bar in your native
Ireland. Will you share with our readers something about your career as a
barrister?

Byrne: I was called to the Bar in 1970 and spent 29 years practicing
as a barrister. The professional life of a barrister at the time had not changed
to any significant degree in decades. Very often young barristers were called
upon to go on circuit, which meant travelling from town to town and experiencing
an astonishing variety of cases. It was a wonderful experience, both
professionally and personally. Over time I became a Senior Counsel, which
involves being engaged in more serious cases before more senior courts. By the
end of my career at the Bar I was spending most of my time before the High
Court, the Supreme Court of Ireland and the European Court of Justice in
Luxembourg.

My practice consisted, in the main, of Administrative Law, Constitutional and
European Community law with commercial elements blended in. In addition, I was
nominated to be Ireland's representative on the Court of Arbitration of the
International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. This was my first foray into the
global arena. Then in 1997 I was invited by Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach (Prime
Minister) to become Attorney General, which is a cabinet position in the Irish
government.

Editor: You held the position of Attorney General of Ireland for two
particularly crucial years. What were the highlights of that period?

Byrne: The principal objective of any Irish government going back many
years has been to bring some resolution to the situation in Northern Ireland.
During my term as Attorney General, the leadership shown by Bertie Ahern and
Tony Blair, with the assistance of Bill Clinton, in trying to bring peace to
Northern Ireland, was phenomenal. My responsibility, of course, was to focus
mainly on the legal aspects of the issue and, specifically, to draft amendments
to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution concerning the claim of the Irish
Republic to jurisdiction over the entire island, including Northern Ireland.
Needless to say, that claim to jurisdiction was a major sticking point in the
negotiations. It was believed that replacing that claim in the Constitution with
a statement to the effect that the Nation of Ireland included the entire
island might lead to a consensus. However, such a step required an amendment of
the Constitution by a referendum of the people. It was also agreed that the Good
Friday Agreement would be put to the people of Northern Ireland by referendum on
the same day. The legal strategy to achieve an effective outcome was quite
complicated. However the plan worked, and the Constitution of Ireland was
amended and the people of Northern Ireland accepted the Good Friday Agreement.
This led to a major step forward in the resolution of this terrible conflict,
which has gone on for so many years and consumed so many lives. There is no
question but that this was the major contribution and a highlight of my time as
Attorney General.

Editor: In September of 1999 you were appointed European Commissioner for
Health and Consumer Protection. For starters, would you give us an overview of
the principal responsibilities of the position?

Byrne: I am the first Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
in the EU. I have had to work on putting in place laws and institutions which
deal with public health and the safety of our citizens. These laws did not
exist, at least in a Pan-European context, in the past. I established the
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent institution comprised of
scientists which advises on risk assessment issues relating to food. I also set
up the European Center for Disease Surveillance and Control (ECDC) located in
Stockholm which should be in full operation next year. The function of the ECDC
is to provide all our member states on a coordinated basis the best advice
available on communicable diseases. Very often the challenge lies in assessing
the level of risk and then developing a response that is proportionate to that
risk and, at the same time, one that attempts to minimize any adverse impacts.
An important priority for the ECDC will be the constant calibration and
recalibration of risk in order to get the right balance in the advice.

Editor: Balancing a variety of different national policies and priorities?

Byrne: Yes. Cultural differences - and there are a great many in
Europe, of course - impact issues related to food and health. The debate in the
U.S. concerning stem cell research has its counterpart in the EU, but to nowhere
near the same extent. On the other hand, the EU has a very vigorous debate
underway on genetically enhanced foods, while people in the U.S. are
considerably more relaxed about this. These are cultural differences, and they
inform the discussion at many different levels. Within the EU there are many
different opinions on these issues, and very often these opinions go to the ways
in which people identify themselves. People hold very strong views on matters of
food and health. For that reason, we go about our business in a very careful,
very deliberative way. The European Commission is a policy-making body. It
drafts the legislation for presentation to the European Parliament and the
Council of Ministers. Since the weight of a member state's vote in the
Parliament and to some extent in the Council is related to the population size,
we in the Commission try to ensure that all views are taken into account in
drafting legislation. This is in order to avoid the perception that the larger
countries are simply imposing their will on the smaller. Again, putting things
into balance is essential.

Editor: As European Commissioner, you have taken a strong stand on the
issue of tobacco control. Please tell us about this effort. Do you see things
moving in the right direction?

Byrne: The principal health official of Europe must take a strong
position on tobacco - something that is so damaging to the health of Europe's
citizens - if he is doing his job. In the U.S. the statistics on smoking are
going in the right direction, but in Europe they remain distressingly high. We
have succeeded in banning tobacco sponsorships for sports events - including
that for Formula One racing - which is crucial if we are to challenge the
linkage between the image projected by sports and smoking. That linkage has
served as a kind of legitimization for smoking, and I am afraid that millions of
young people, seeking to project a cool image, have suffered the consequences. I
have also brought forward legislation to ban tobacco advertising in newspapers,
magazines and television.

The recent ban on smoking enacted in Ireland - which I understand received
considerable publicity here - is certainly a step in the right direction. We
have a considerable way to go, however, before we can say that we have succeeded
in "denormalizing" the use of tobacco.

Editor: BSE has also been high on your agenda. You have indicated that a
complete and coherent framework of statutes is now in place for the prevention,
control and eradication of this disease. Does this mean that the crisis is past?

Byrne: We have made huge progress since the initial outbreak of the
disease in the UK in 1996. Member states have now banned the use of animal feed
derived from the cadavers of other animals and have removed from the food chain
the materials identified as at risk of carrying the disease. As a result the
incidence of BSE has dropped dramatically. The crisis may be past, but it is
important to remain alert.

Editor: You referred to genetically modified food and feed as a subject of
considerable controversy in Europe. Your office has been at the center of the
discussion. Where does the issue stand today?

Byrne: The European consumer is very nervous about anything unusual in
connection with food. In 1998 - and perhaps, in part, as a consequence of the
BSE crisis - some of the EU member states put into place a moratorium on any
further authorizations of genetically modified food or feed in the absence of
legislation providing for traceability and for labeling. That legislation has
been the responsibility of my office, and it is now in place. My position has
been that genetically modified food and feed is not a public health
issue, but rather a consumer information issue. What we have today is a
procedure for labeling that permits the consumer to be fully informed and to
make his own decisions.

Editor: Agricultural subsidies have received considerable attention
recently. Our readers would be interested to hear about this from a European
perspective.

Byrne: There is a long history of support for farmers on the part of
most countries that export agricultural products. Some of this has a cultural
basis, and much of what farmers produce is intertwined with culture and history
and tradition. In the modern world this is beginning to recede. Less developed
countries are quick to point out that they are at a level of development where
they can only export primary products, and that this avenue - their only means
of development - is denied them by the subsidies granted by the developed
countries to their farmers. I see a gradual convergence of views on this issue:
for cultural and historical reasons, some support for agriculture on the part of
the developed nations is going to continue, but there is real recognition on the
part of such nations that support which serves to deny development in much of
the world is not right.

Editor: What about the future?

Byrne: I think that the question of global governance is extremely
important. As globalization proceeds, there is an ever greater need for
globalization of the legal order. We all benefit from the globalized
marketplace, but there is a perception that it is corporations - and not the
ordinary citizens of the world - that are the primary beneficiaries. I think we
are in the initial stages of an emerging global legal structure that will serve
to govern the globalization process. Such a structure would help to ensure that
the benefits of globalization extend to everyone and, of course, avoid the
alienation that prevails in some parts of the world. The United States Supreme
Court, in dealing with international antitrust issues and alien tort legislation
during its most recent session, is certainly sending a very strong signal that
this process has begun.

Editor: And David Byrne's future?

Byrne: I step down from my EU post later this year. I am certain that
international trade issues, particularly as they impact the ongoing health
discussion, will continue to occupy much of my time. I very much enjoy being in
the United States, and I would hope to be here often.