This article is part of our special report European Medicines Agency: What’s at stake?.
Member states are being urged to unite around the issue of relocating the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA), rather than bicker in public and give the UK government cause to believe the EU cannot cooperate properly, diplomats told EURACTIV.com.
The European Commission has announced six criteria the candidates need to fulfil in order to become the drug agency’s new home.
Member states have until the end of July to submit their bids to host EMA and the European Banking Agency but the political discussion has already heated up [See background].
The Commission has tried to downplay the political angle of the talks. It has stressed that the relocation of the EMA is not part of the Brexit negotiations but a consequence to be agreed amongst the remaining 27.
The executive has also made clear its intention for a quick decision about the transfer.
But the member states admit that the decision is a big test for them and for the EU as a whole, on a political and communications level.
According to diplomats close to the talks, there is a deep divide between the old and the new member states. The first camp suggests that the relocation does not concern a new agency but an old one, while the second camp is pushing for a “geographical balance”.
There was also a proposal to split the EMA’s several departments across Europe but it never took off due to the high number of candidacies.
In addition, EURACTIV.com has learned that some countries have also raised some concerns about the “objective” criteria.
“One cannot argue that the new EMA location should depend on the number of flight connections with the rest of Europe,” a source said, underlining that this automatically excludes certain member states from the periphery of Europe.
Another crucial element of the recent EU Council talks was that the EU leaders decided “not to give the wrong message to the UK government and to the public”.
A diplomat said that a deadlock or intense public discussions among member states could show a lack of unity and, above all, inability to reach the first Brexit-related decision.
“Indeed, we have thoroughly discussed this issue and decided to have a quick and effective relocation; otherwise we risk to send a wrong message that we cannot cooperate […] obviously, reaching a deadlock in that would not look good in the eyes of the public opinion, both in the UK and the EU,” the diplomat warned.
The diplomat added that a public dispute among the member states could also be seen by the UK government as a weakness on the EU’s part ahead of the crucial Brexit talks. That line of thinking is mainly endorsed by the member states that have not expressed an interest in hosting the agency.
Paris and Berlin want to change the rules
At some point, there were rumours that France would support Germany in its bid to host the European Banking Authority (EBA), while Germany would in return back Paris’s wish to have the EMA relocated to Lille.
But EURACTIV was told that the plans have changed. France now appears to be in favour of getting the EBA because it would help attract more banks to Paris.
“At least Frankfurt should not get the EBA,” diplomatic sources stressed, stating that if it did, it would deal a blow to the French banking sector.
Before the official vote in November, each country will present its bid in October and the Commission will then assess them.
EURACTIV has learned that Paris and Germany will push for an EU Council agreement and not a Eurovision style votings, which they claim won’t work.
“All 22 candidates will vote for themselves in the first round, and then in the second round for irrelevant candidates, so in the end, the winner will get very light support and no legitimacy,” the diplomatic sources said.
“Tusk has pushed for the Eurovision system to calm down Eastern countries which were totally upset, but Germany and France are pushing for an agreement in this discussion at EUCO, before the voting process,” one diplomat said.
Several southern members, including Spain, Portugal and Greece, have stated an interest to host the agency.
Barcelona’s intention to host the EMA is nothing new. In 1992, the Catalan capital offered to take the agency but narrowly lost out to London.
“Many years after that, we are obviously much more prepared,” said Carlos Parry Lafont, an adviser for the Spanish Ministry of Health.
Parry told EURACTIV that Barcelona’s new bid is not only based on the city’s natural advantages but also on its potential for biomedical research and high investment in clinical research “besides the guarantee Spain can give for the continuity of EMA business without any disruptions”.
“Almost 40% of the pharmaceutical companies located in Spain are based in Barcelona,” Parry explained, adding that the local pharma industry is a leader in clinical trials in oncology.
Asked whether the plans to hold a second independence referendum in Catalonia in October could derail Barcelona’s bid, Parry replied: “That is not on the agenda and the best proof is that the Spanish government is leading the bid, working together with the Catalan government and the Barcelona municipality”.
The Spanish government official also said that after years of strong and painful reforms the Spanish economy has been through, giving the EMA to Barcelona “would send a strong message”.
“It would reward the efforts the Spanish people have made all these years,” he emphasised.
In the meantime, the European Commission said this week that the process of Catalonia’s independence was not a criterion to determine whether or not Barcelona could host the EMA.
“The criteria for choosing the new headquarters of the European agencies are already known and I do not remember that this is one of them,” Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein sressed.
Analysts suggest that Madrid is trying to send a dual message. Domestically, the government is showing Catalonia support in an effort to mend relations, while at the same time putting indirect pressure on Brussels to help stabilise the EU’s internal political landscape, thereby helping itself.
For Lisbon, it is common sense for the EMA to go south. In a recent interview with EURACTIV, Portugal’s State Secretary for European Affairs Margarida Marques said that southern cities are in a better state to host the agency.
“Officials from the EMA prefer to go to the south more than the north because the weather and the food are better. You also find good facilities to integrate your family and your children. It is not a scientific argument, it is common sense,” she claimed.
Crisis-hit Greece, which is currently hosting the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA), has also joined the race to get the EMA.
Greece’s Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Georgios Katrougalos, has highlighted the low cost, the local growth potential and the country’s strong pharmaceutical sector.
Diplomats also claim that the EMA could offer great opportunities for local Greek businesses as every year it invites thousands of scientists, supports conference tourism and brings customers in hotels and throughout the catering industry.
“We are interested in taking 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 told EURACTIV.
Focusing on “business continuity”
Northern European countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Ireland are focusing on the need for a smooth transition.
“The Netherlands guarantees the full business continuity of EMA should it relocate to the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area,” a Dutch government document noted.
“This will allow the EU’s pharmaceutical sector to safeguard human and animal health in the EU,” the document states.
The Dutch also claim that their country has one of the strongest national medicines regulatory agencies in the EU and that it will increase its scientific capacity to take a larger share of EMA’s work.
For Copenhagen, the EMA should be placed in a location that is attractive to staff, new recruits and all other involved parties.
“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,” Danish government special EMA envoy Lars Rebien Sørensen said.
Ireland believes that its cultural and geographical proximity to the UK is an advantage for EMA staff.
Irish Minister for Health Simon Harris recently said he opposed a politicised discussion over the relocation and pointed out that EU leaders should focus on the “objective criteria”.