‘I remember it was a terrible time when he delivered his speech… I was so attacked… I saw this guy who spoke about issues which were far from reality. He sent to people his lies and of course it was painful to see. I was deeply touched by such lies.’
Vytenis Andriukaitis has achieved extraordinary amounts through his various careers in domestic politics, the international arena and medicine. But he has rarely had more coverage in the press than when – following a now infamous speech by arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage in the European Parliament, in which he accused MEPs of ‘never having a real job in their lives’ – he was pictured desolate, head in hands, despairing.
It was a moment which united many pro-Europeans in the UK and across Europe in horror – but Farage’s speeches, which often likened the EU to the Soviet Union, were particularly triggering for Dr Andriukaitis, who had dedicated so much of his life to fighting authoritarianism and had been arrested on several occasions in his younger years for his role in anti-Soviet movements. For Dr Andriukaitis the European project was the absolute antithesis of – the antidote to – the sort of authoritarianism that affected his early life and saw his parents deported from Lithuania to a Siberian gulag.
‘It was painful,’ he says, reflecting on Mr Farage’s speech. ‘Absolutely stupid.’
Brexit, and the extrication of Britain from the EU, both politically and in the general sense of distance it created, felt like personal tragedies for Dr Andriukaitis. He feared back then it would be a ‘disaster’ for the UK and hurtful for the EU and none of the events since 2016 have changed his view, particularly when it comes to health and healthcare.
We need to find ways to build new bridges between the UK and the EUVytenis Andriukaitis
Dr Andriukaitis describes access to healthcare, health systems, food safety, safety standards, research and investment, fighting rare diseases and public health as ‘sensitive areas’ which need cooperation across the continent.
‘It was clear it would be so difficult for all of us and you would see a lot of difficult questions related to practical implementation of your separation, and still now you see some very difficult consequences in areas of people’s health and disease and access to treatment and investment. We are facing those challenges now.’
In particular, Dr Andriukaitis cites shortages of medicines and healthcare staff as reasons for greater collaboration, and in recent days and weeks the UK’s scientific community has urged access to the EU’s Horizon programme for scientific collaboration and discovery.
Collaboration, ever closer union, railing against nationalism – these are not just buzzwords or slogans for Dr Andriukaitis. They mean everything. That sense of togetherness and a motivation for social justice are his key principles. ‘Social justice was, and still is, the main goal which inspires me to serve people,’ he says. ‘Today we see big problems with social justice, in my country, in the EU and globally also.’
Social justice is not only Dr Andriukaitis’ inspiration in politics but was also the driving force for his study of medicine. When he was at school, Lithuanian doctors were key national leaders and figures and ‘had a strong influence in our Lithuanian national movement’.
He says: ‘They made a lot of steps in defending social justice, proposing broad concepts like social guarantees, social security and healthcare security. Those ideas – to be a medical doctor and to serve people were very close to my heart. I tried to connect my understanding about how to treat people… with their health… and to be prepared to help them in their difficult circumstances.’
Dr Andriukaitis, who is also passionate about history and holds a degree in the field from Vilnius University, specialised in cardiovascular surgery for more than 20 years before moving into politics.
In every difficult situation I have always stayed an optimistVytenis Andriukaitis
His political achievements have been vast. He is co-author and a signatory of the Independence Act of Lithuania of March 1990 and one of the co-authors of the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania adopted in 1992.
Dr Andriukaitis was one of the founders of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party and later chairman of the party. He was a member of the Lithuanian Parliament for six terms and served as minister for health, and chaired the committee on European affairs, including during the accession to the EU in 2004, as a member of the foreign affairs committee, and as a deputy speaker of the Parliament.
He has also been European commissioner for health and food safety and now special envoy of the WHO for universal health coverage.
It has been a life extraordinarily well lived – a list of achievements few can match. But Dr Andriukaitis is focused only on the future and continuing to fight for those principles of social justice. He also hopes that the story of Britain’s role in the EU is not yet over. ‘I am an optimist, generally,’ he says. ‘Of course, I am 72 years old, not a young man, but in every difficult situation I have always stayed as an optimist.
‘We need to unite our forces… We need to find ways to build new bridges between the UK and the EU. I truly believe that the UK will join the EU once again. Of course it needs to take time.’
He adds: ‘My profession as a cardiac surgeon was a very difficult one but we stayed always in a positive mood. We tried to find ways to be constructive, to be progressive, to see what can inspire and how we can inspire people to be positive and to seek positivity.’
Perhaps Dr Andriukaitis’ biggest focus is on campaigning for universal healthcare across the world.
He says: ‘Health is one of the biggest human rights. Health for all.’
(Image credit: Annika Haas)