EMA relocation should consider the wellbeing of all Europeans

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The EMA in London is closing and transferring operations by end of March 2019. [Shutterstock]

The competition for the European Medicines Agency is not a horse race but the first concrete, effective decision the EU has to make in the wake of Brexit – and one with long-lasting consequences. A responsible yet ambitious mindset is therefore in order, writes Sandro Gozi.

Sandro Gozi is an Italian MP in the ruling democratic party and secretary of state on European Affairs.

On 20 November, my colleagues and I will cast our ballots to decide the future location of the European Medicines Agency, currently based in London. We must be sure that the decision we are making is right for the Agency, its staff and their families and most importantly, for the citizens of the EU.

The EMA may not be the most known or glamorous of EU institutions, but the role it plays in our society deserves our utmost attention.

From scientific recommendations to the approval of new medicines, from pharmacovigilance to the safety and monitoring activities, this agency plays a vital role in providing the EU’s 500 million citizens with treatments for health issues, including ground-breaking pharmaceutical innovations to cure diseases and save lives.

During its transition from London, we have both a practical and ethical obligation to maintain its full operational continuity and to ensure the Agency can carry on its ongoing effort to protect public and animal health without disruptions. We cannot afford delays; we cannot afford interruptions.

To put it simply, it is our collective duty, as European decision-makers, to allow the EMA to end its operations on Friday evening and seamlessly continue their work in a new city on Monday morning.

While continuity must be prioritised, it is equally important to guarantee that the new location is suitable for the nearly one thousand EMA employees that work there every day, safeguarding public health. A great pool of talented scientists and researchers from across the world will need to move to a new city, find schools for their children, explore new employment opportunities for their partners, and build a life in a new home.

Especially in the short term, some of the EMA’s employees might opt to move in advance of their families, making the new location’s accessibility a critical factor.

Our choice must secure the Agency’s ability to keep these talents and create an opportunity to recruit the future generations of scientists and researchers. We cannot afford to forget that staff retention is key to preserving not only continuity but also the high standards that the EMA currently demonstrates.

Nineteen European cities submitted their proposal to host the Agency and they are all still competing today, yet the technical assessments of the European Commission point to the fact that only a few fully meet the requirements to become the EMA’s new home.

Milan, the business capital of Italy and home to 8 leading universities, has bid to host the agency and – in my opinion – would be the best choice.

Transferring the EMA to Milan would allow for a smooth relocation, thanks to the city’s infrastructures, to its great connectivity to European cities and to a prestigious, functional, fully refurbished and centrally-located building – the Pirelli skyscraper, a true icon for all Milanese which is ready and available to host the Agency from day one.

Today, Milan is the ideal location for an EU agency. The metropolis has experienced an impressive transformation over the past few years, through a comprehensive plan of urban development and renovation, best symbolized by the success of hosting EXPO 2015.

At the same time, Milan has encouraged the growth of an impressive pharmaceutical industry, the second largest in Europe, and it has emerged as one of Europe’s best research and business environments.

Today’s Milan has excellent commercial and touristic links with Europe and the rest of the world, offers a vibrant and cosmopolitan lifestyle as well as outstanding living conditions at value for money prices, together with ample employment and education opportunities for the Agency’s staff and their families.

I could continue to detail the reasons why Milan is the best choice for the EMA’s new home, but that’s not the focus of my thinking. Rather, as a citizen of Europe and as a decision-maker, I ask my fellow EU ministers to weigh their choices carefully and be mindful of the well-being of all Europeans.

This is not a decision we can make through the lens of the next electoral cycle, giving precedence to our own political gains, and therefore settling for a sub-optimal choice. This would be short-sighted and dangerous on several levels.

We have a responsibility to address the bigger picture and look at Europe’s next generations, making a sound choice based on the technical criteria, prioritizing the EMA’s business continuity and planning for its scientific prosperity. Proper evaluation and foresight will allow us to safeguard an efficient, enduring and world-class standard of healthcare for our children.

We as decision-makers will be held accountable for this critical decision and history will judge it. Once again, this is not a horse race, but a political process that must look at what we can do for the healthcare of all EU citizens for the decades to come.