Published: 30/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5962 Page 21

The UK's EU presidency, which starts tomorrow, is an opportunity not to be wasted, says Mark McCarthy

Brussels has been busy. June is the last month of the six-monthly rotating presidency, which culminates in ministerial meetings. And there is special significance this year, as the UK prepares to take over the reins.

I was there to consult on the next EU research programme. Four years ago, at a conference on European medical research in Spain, presentations celebrated biomedical and genomics research, and the growing links between clinical studies and the pharmaceutical industry. Health, as we understand it, was not at the table.

A small group objected - writing editorials and letters and promoting debate. The commission's own staff responded positively, as it recognises that health systems are a priority for health ministers. Also, the existing EU treaties require a 'high level of health protection' for Europe's citizens - which will not come through biomedical research alone.

So it is welcome that the draft text for the next research programme (to last seven years from 2007) gives due place to public health in its broad sense - including health protection, health services research and health determinants.

The contribution of the UK government in this process will be characteristically ambiguous. We are leading players in health research itself, in quality and quantity of publications, and sought-for partners in Europe-wide consortia. But the Foreign Office, which manages our representation on research issues at EU level, is as much influenced by politics as by science.

European headlines have been about the constitution (a French folly), the EU budget (the UK meanly trying to force contributions below any proposals by any other country - a mere 1 per cent of GNP) and the UK rebate, where prime minister Tony Blair stands steadfastly alongside Margaret Thatcher (did you vote for something different in 1997? ) Among my colleagues at the Brussels research meeting, politics was not an issue. EU integration is just hard work: it depends on goodwill, financial support and everyone speaking English (a further irony). And the researchers themselves must want to co-operate, and to give time away from their local and national work, often without as much professional recognition.

But the NHS is also increasingly interested in Europe. Several regions have set up offices, with staff working both locally and in Brussels. They can help you find partners and funding sources, and use their links to other public-sector areas - regeneration, education, social care.

Also, the developmental work done by the World Health Organisation's Healthy Cities initiative set Labour's agenda on local action for public health and health inequalities. Stirling and Sunderland are taking on European collaboration through Healthy Cities, while many local authorities have contacts through twinning and exchanges.

The UK presidency of the council of ministers in the second half of this year could restore British interest in Europe.

Perhaps we will realise that EU countries have more experiments in organising health services than the US.

Perhaps we will embrace the strong EU leadership on international tobacco control. Perhaps we will even re-engage with the EU and WHO programme on environment and health.

If not, there is a long time to wait until the next programmed turn for the UK to take the presidency - in 2017.

Mark McCarthy is professor of public health at University College London.

The draft text for the next EU research programme can be found at http: //europa. eu. int/eur-lex/lex/ LexUriServ/site/en/com/2005/ com2005_0119en01. pdf