The relocation of the EMA: a technical or a political issue?

November 16, 2017


Since the UK’s decision to exit the European Union, for the first time in the Union’s history a peculiar issue has arisen: the necessity to relocate two Agencies to new sites. Indeed, the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency, currently located in London, will have to move to their new host countries at the latest on the 29th March 2019, when the Brexit will be ultimately finalized.


The question of the EMA is the one that is raising more discussions, both for the system that has been established to decide on its relocation, and for the large economic interests it brings along. This agency is served by 900 full time staffs, and is estimated to generate revenues for about 4 billion euros per year for its hosting city. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that a record 19 cities have applied to become its new basis. But how does the decision on the relocation work?


Last June, the European Council has established a rather peculiar system, based on two different phases: a pre-vote assessment and a voting session. The former consists of a technical evaluation of the candidates according to several criteria set by the Commission, which required a full dossier of presentation from all the applicants.

The latter is based on a secret vote, divided in two rounds: in the first one each country will have the same number of votes, 3 – respectively weighting as 3, 2 and 1; in the second one (which will take place on the next 20th November), the three most voted countries from the first round will be again voted on, save for the unlikely scenario where one candidate acquires the majority in the first round.


The results of the evaluation were published by the Commission in September, and later integrated by an appraisal of the EMA itself. Though the Commission did not rank the candidatures but provided only single evaluations, comparisons among the results have been easily made: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Milan, Vienna and Barcelona gained the top-5 positions.

Given these results, one could soundly expect that these countries, having proven to be the fittest for the role, would be the most likely winners. Instead, here comes the surprise: according to the Financial Times, the two most probable winners are Milan, as reasonably expected, and Bratislava.


Given the premises, how has Bratislava gotten in the run is an interesting question. The solution to this riddle brings us back to the second phase of the decision-making process: the political vote.

Though decisions on the creation of new agencies are usually taken through a unanimous vote, which involves typically two or three years of negotiations, this system would have been unsuitable for this circumstance, due to the innate urgency of the problem and the incumbent deadline. For this reason, the European Council has approved the peculiar voting system previously explained.


This second phase introduced Bratislava in the final rush: how so? It is a complex vote, a secret one, that paves the way for a political choice rather than a technical one: it creates a hiatus between the evaluative attempt and the actual decision. Bratislava entered the final rush for three main reasons: firstly, because currently Eastern European Countries do not have a significant number of agencies, and Slovakia in particular still has none. From an ideological point of view, it is perfectly reasonable to share evenly the agencies over the whole EU territory, also in the countries that entered last in the Union. Moreover, among East European countries, Slovakia is one of the few where a pro-European feeling resists. Thus, supporting the nation with an important role and a significant economic contribution could provide a positive example for the more euro-skeptic countries of the area. Lastly, several sources refer that Germany is strongly advocating for the success of this candidature, in light of an east-west scheme of support meant to obtain, in exchange, the relocation of the Banking Authority on its territory.


But should we really support this candidature purely on principle? We are here discussing a very technical and practical issue. Reports from the EMA announced that the relocation is expected to cause a serious slow-down in the agency’s work, with a minimum of two or three years necessary to return to the previous functional levels (and this only considering the locations most fitted for the job). Additionally, the agency has conducted a survey among its employees on whether they would be willing to move to the candidate locations. For Milan and the others top 4 candidates, the staff retention would be larger than the 65%; on the contrary, around the 80% of the staff declared that it would not move to Bratislava: what would happen to the functionality of the agency if even only half of them actually decided to resign rather than move to Slovakia?


In this particular situation, being realistic should prevail on geopolitical geometries. A certain degree of business continuity is essential for minimizing the costs of the relocation of an agency that has a profound impact on the lives of European citizens. The EMA’s work has a daily effect on all of us: if it were to be disrupted, the trials and release of new medicaments would be slowed down, maybe for several years, or we could assist to the input of mediocre drugs on the European markets.

Bratislava does not only have problems in its appeal to the staff, but has resulted as one of the less qualified locations according to the Commission feedback. Its accessibility does not meet EMA requirements and, therefore, does not ensure EMA’s business continuity: the city is not fit to host 600/700 visitors per day, it does not have an easily accessible airport close to the city (to the point that it presented Vienna’s airport as its own best alternative, though Vienna is a candidate by itself), nor it provides accessible social security for employees’ spouses and families.


Giving all the elements presented, the candidature of Milan and the other top-three candidates, having Barcelona excluded itself for its current political situation, should be supported over that of Bratislava. Though the idea that the pro-European Eastern Europe should be involved more in the daily activity of the Union is understandable and easily agreed upon, this is not the occasion to force it. An unfit candidature should not be accepted for mere political play-games if what is at stake is the health of citizens.

However, having chosen an apt location for the EMA, new efforts should be made towards eastern countries: a good starting point could be, for instance, assigning them the new agencies that will likely be created in the months to come, as depicted in Junker’s “State of the Union” speech.


It is difficult to make predictions on how the vote of the next 20 November will turn out. Both candidates are reportedly engaged in a strong lobbying, and the technical evaluations are paradoxically not being treated as the key point for discussion. Regardless of the results of the vote, one thing is certain: this system, that created a two-folded and contradictory process, is certainly not a good example of how the Union should work. Hopefully, in the rise of new, complex, situations as the one here analyzed, the Council will come up with systems that are more fair and reasonable. In particular, the key would be to maintain a link between the technical aspects and the final vote, which could have been easily made by taking advantage of the Commission’s assessments to admit to the second phase only the candidatures fit for the role. We will see how everything will turn out, hoping that the European leaders will make a technical – reasonably due – choice, rather than a political one. 



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