EU drugs agency: Don’t politicise Brexit relocation, say Athens, Copenhagen

Hosting the EMA headquarters brings great economic benefits to the host city as the service employs almost 900 people, who are paid by the EU. [Steven Depolo/Flickr]

The criteria regarding the relocation of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) from London after the Brexit vote should not be political, Danish and Greek officials told Euractiv.com on Monday (20 February).

The EMA is an EU regulatory authority which ensures that medicines available to about 500 million citizens across Europe are appropriate and safe.

The office is currently in London, but due to Brexit, it will need to be moved outside the UK. Euractiv was informed that the procedure for the agency’s relocation would start as soon as Article 50 is officially activated and then the EU Council would make the final decision.

Hosting the EMA headquarters brings great economic benefits to the host city as the service employs almost 900 people, who are paid by the EU.

Italy and Spain lead the fight to conquer UK-based EU agencies

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Rome and Madrid are leading the race to gain the right to host influential EU agencies, while Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia could remain empty-handed.

Several EU countries have already expressed their interest in hosting the agency, such as Sweden, Denmark, Italy, France, Ireland, Germany, Greece, and Croatia.

The procedure has not started officially. However, discussion about the criteria that the EU will use to relocate the drugs agency has already begun.

Denmark: Strict criteria  

Copenhagen already hosts the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Europe and for many this is seen as a comparative advantage.

In an interview with Euractiv.com last week, Danish government special EMA envoy Lars Rebien Sørensen said that his aim was to build up a coalition behind the process where EMA is placed in a location that is attractive to the staff, new recruitments, and all the collaboration partners EMA has.

“Hopefully, in our view, Copenhagen has an environment that has an academic level and tradition of good governance that will increase the likelihood that EMA will continue to function as well as it does in London,” Sørensen stressed.

Asked about the high cost of living in Copenhagen, he said, “The problem is that the people that are working in EMA are international, professional individuals, where I think it would be finding it difficult to retain that type of international, professional staff in an environment which does not have the same international standards.”

“This is just my assumption. So it’s a balance between functionality, retention, and attractiveness for new staff,” he added.

Sørensen also pointed out that the drug agency should not be used as a “bargaining chip” in regional development.

“We hope that the European Commission is courageous enough, together with perhaps the Council, to make some relatively strict criteria and also be willing to make the political decision of selecting some locations, but then ensure the others that are left are better suited and any one of them will be a possible future location.”

The Danish official warned against “politicising” the process, claiming that this would be the worst scenario.

Denmark, Sweden eye post-Brexit EU drugs agency

Denmark’s pharmaceutical industry is going head-to-head with its Swedish counterpart by arguing Denmark should be the new home of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) if Britons vote to leave the European Union in a June referendum.

“But of course I know also that if we are in Brussels that risk is still there, (and) eventually at the end of the day it is the ministers that will end up making the decision, and how they make the decisions is always a political process. But as much as we can depoliticise the process, the better,” he emphasised.

He continued, saying that patient organisations, pharmacist organisations, industrial organisations that are in pharmaceutical research and generic manufacturing of medicine, all have shown resounding support for an objective, criteria-based as well as a fast process.

Referring to the length of the process, he pointed out that it should not be long and that the announcement of criteria would be forthcoming relatively shortly after the activation of Article 50.

Athens: Not a ‘give and take’ process

Crisis-hit Greece, which is currently hosting the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA), is also entering the race to get the EMA.

Diplomats claim that, for Athens, the EMA could offer great opportunities for local businesses as every year it invites thousands of scientists, supports conference tourism and brings customers in hotels and throughout the catering industry.

Greece’s Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Georgios Katrougalos, told Euractiv that the whole process should not be politicised and choose a location that does not have the prerequisites to continue the operation of the agency.

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“We are interested in simultaneously taking in Greece the agency for our own national reasons but also, because we are Europeans and we want to ensure its operation as is the case now,” Katrougalos noted.

The Greek politician emphasised that the Council’s decision should not be based on ‘give and take’ criteria among the member states and stressed the most significant thing was to ensure the normal operation of the agency whose importance is crucial for the drug market in Europe.

Lower cost and growth

Explaining the reasons why Athens should host the drugs agency, the leftist Syriza minister emphasised that the pharmaceutical sector in Greece is strategic, as medicines are the country’s leading export product.

“This is an area which survived during the crisis,” Katrougkalos said, stressing that his government views drugs as a “social good”, and, “we think that this attitude is important in general for Europe”.

“It is important for Greece in terms of local growth […] indeed, due to the crisis the country has been faced with, the presence of such an EU agency will significantly contribute to speeding up growth,” Katrougkalos added.

In addition, the minister stated that Athens was an international and European hub thanks to the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport, which is connected with Europe’s capitals.

Katrougkalos also pointed out that there is an important infrastructure network necessary for the operation of the agency and stressed that because of the crisis, life and operating costs for the service would be less than the other competing countries.

Last but not least, the minister focused on Greece’s climate and the added value it could bring to the everyday quality of life for the EMA’s employees.