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EU Constitutional Order for Responding to Human Health Disasters

Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance

Anniek de Ruijter, Associate Professor of European Law, has been awarded a Veni grant for her research into improved legal safeguards at the EU level, aimed at tackling major public health crises such as outbreaks of infectious diseases or bioterrorist attacks. A Veni is an individual grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to researchers who have recently obtained their PhDs.

‘The rapid global spread of serious infectious diseases such as bird flu constitutes a growing risk. The EU has gradually gained greater powers when it comes to tackling such major crises, but the constitutional safeguards within EU law have not kept pace with this growing role for the EU.’

These words are derived from Anniek de Ruijter's research proposal EU Constitutional Order for Responding to Human Health Disasters. De Ruijter: ‘The European Union is being given greater powers to tackle public health threats, but there is still a lack of specific regulations to provide a framework within which the EU must operate in this area. I now hope to find a suitable solution.’ The Veni will provide De Ruijter with 250,000 euros, allowing her to spend three years to study a potential new constitutional framework for the EU.


One of the reasons why the European Union has been given increasing powers to shape policies and laws relating to health crises in recent years is the increased attention being paid to public health as a component of security policy, says De Ruijter. ‘The threat of a terrorist attack involving pathogens has become increasingly realistic, but even “normal” public health risks are increasingly being portrayed as a security risk by policymakers.’

Screening of passengers

The downside of this increased power on the part of the EU is that it directly affects individual human rights. ‘Examples include tracing human contacts throughout the EU or screening aircraft passengers for infectious diseases. Europe plays a major role here, but the question is whether this policy is compatible with individual basic rights.’

Another constitutional issue is the institutional framework which must be in place to allow the EU to cope with public health threats. De Ruijter: ‘The World Health Organization has regulations to which its member states must adhere in a crisis. The EU has regulations as well, but the member states also have their own responsibilities at the same time: who will do what and when, and who will bear responsibility?’

As yet, there is still no explicit constitutional framework for the EU regarding such issues. ‘If the EU has this power, it must also have a legal foundation. For example, if you wish to follow people via a tracking system, legal safeguards must be in place before you can do so.’

A new approach

While existing research mainly focuses on national or international measures for dealing with public health crises, De Ruijter's research proposal shows that the EU-level approach is new. Her research is twofold: on the one hand, it takes stock of the existing legislation for emergency situations in the individual member states; on the other, it is also normative and legislative and should lead to concrete policy advice for national and EU policymakers.