First-hand Reflections on EHIC

There is a lot to be gained by staying in EU specialised agencies. Why squander the advantages?

Over the past 76 years I have been fortunate never to have seen the inside of an operating theatre. Yesterday, I was one of the first people to be treated in a brand-new theatre, opened just a week ago. The set-up was amazing – at least to a novice – with great shiny arrays of lights, screens, scanners and other instruments hanging from the ceiling, distracting me from the digging and sewing around my groin under a local anaesthetic. The sterile surroundings were brightened up by a colourful floor-to-ceiling picture of a field of maize on one wall.

I ended up as a patient here because, as a British citizen living in Italy, I have a free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) that entitles me to be cared for by the Italian health authorities. British citizens travelling in Europe enjoy the same entitlement as do Italian – and indeed all European – residents and visitors in Britain who can freely access the NHS. If there should be a no-deal Brexit, these reciprocal entitlements would vanish overnight.

I also reflected on the striking efficiency of the process through which I had arrived in the theatre. I visited my GP in our nearby village on a Monday morning. After examining me, he gave me a prescription for the operation and told me to take it to the chemist just up the road.  She called the main county hospital and fixed an appointment for me with a surgeon for the same afternoon. She, a young Albanian doctor trained in Rome, examined me and arranged a round of ‘pre-op’ tests for an entire morning the following week and told me that, all being well, the operation could be set for the next week: there was no waitlist. For personal reasons, I opted to delay it for a month till yesterday.

I am sharing my experience with you because it seems highly relevant to next week’s voting in the election to the European Parliament.  Much of the discourse surrounding Brexit has been about customs unions, backstops and the single market. Almost no attention has been given to the really important work of the EU’s specialised agencies and other bodies that have done so much to improve our welfare in various ways that we tend to take for granted. If Britain leaves the EU, our ease of access to the benefits that these programmes offer will be compromised.

By invoking Article 50 to signal Britain’s intention to leave the EU, the process of exclusion from European institutions has begun even before we have left. The European Medicine Agency (EMA) has already moved from Canary Wharf to Amsterdam and the European Banking Authority (EBA) is being transferred from London to Paris.  The European Youth Orchestra which has lived happily in London since 1976 has now packed up to settle in Ferrara and Rome, here in Italy. In all cases we are abdicating a say in management of these entities, depriving ourselves of valuable services, and causing hundreds of British employees to lose their jobs unless they change their nationalities.

Britain has played a leading role in the creation of many of the EU bodies that assure food safety, livestock health, sea and air safety, fair working standards, coordination between countries to address common environmental problems, student exchange (ERASMUS), shared research initiatives and so many more. The campaign for leaving the EU popularised the image of bureaucrats in Brussels churning out pointless regulations and imposing them on us, totally ignoring the huge benefits that countries, including the UK, can gain from taking democratically approved joint actions to address the common opportunities and problems that are bound to exist between neighbours.

My final reflection of the day was about the way in which Britain’s unilateral exit from these institutions increases the risk of conflict in the region. Much of the EU’s contribution to the peace that has reigned in Europe since I was a young child has been a by-product of the mutual trust and respect created between specialists who have dedicated themselves to working together to advance our way of life. Brexit erodes this mutual confidence and leaves us out in the cold.

If you are a one of Britain’s 45 million voters, there is a good chance that you own one of the 27 million EHIC cards issued in the country. Even if you have never used the card, it will have reassured you about easy access to health services when you travel abroad. But, if like me, you have used one, please give a bit of credit to the EU for inventing and running it with the full engagement of the NHS.

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