Now that the bids are in from EU member states keen to host the European Medicines Agency after Brexit, the European Commission has the unenviable task of assessing the offers and submitting its conclusions to the European Council, with a final decision on the new location for this much sought after EU agency due in November.
19 countries have put themselves forward as the ideal candidate for the EMA when it moves out of London as a result of the Brexit vote. (Also see "19 Countries Have Submitted Bids To Host The EMA Post-Brexit" - Pink Sheet, 1 Aug, 2017.) All have explained, to a greater or lesser degree, how they believe they meet the five “objective” criteria laid down by the EU authorities, including suitable premises for the agency, accessibility of the location, provision of education for the families of staff, and the ability to ensure business continuity at the agency during the relocation.
But while the list of criteria is intended to ensure the decision is taken in the most transparent way and to avoid unseemly squabbling among the member states, the sixth criterion on the list, “geographical spread,” could throw a spanner in the works and set eastern European countries against those in western Europe.
Geographical spread refers to the aim of equitably distributing EU agencies among the member states. The principle was agreed by member states in 2003 and confirmed in 2008, the intention being to ensure that due consideration was given to the newer member states – mostly from eastern Europe – when deciding where to set up any new agencies.
Four of the newer countries – Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Slovakia – still do not have an EU agency. The three eastern European countries in this group are pushing strongly to host the EMA, and in their bid documents they have made clear that if the principle of geographic spread is to be respected, the EMA should go to one of them.
But other countries in western Europe, while acknowledging the significance of this principle, take the view that because the EMA is not a new agency – it has been operating since 1995 – and because of its critical public health mission, the need to ensure the continuity of its operations should take precedence over geographical spread.
“Appropriate priority should be given to member states that acceded to the Union in/after 2004 or that do not already host an EU agency” – Slovakian government
The View From Eastern Europe
In its bid, the Slovakian government says that, in addition to the fact that the country and its capital Bratislava “objectively meet the criteria, we wish to point to the principle of geographical spread for HQs of EU offices and agencies.” It says that “appropriate priority should be given to member states that acceded to the Union in/after 2004 or that do not already host an EU office or agency.”
It says that Slovakia is one of the few member states that do not host the headquarters of a European agency, and “we strongly believe that the upcoming decision will follow these pre-agreed and publicly committed principles.”
It says this criterion “becomes even more relevant given the currently disproportionate distribution of EU agencies’ HQs among member states. Twelve EU agencies established after 2003 have been allocated to older member states, and several older member states host more than one EU agency.
“Compared to the other countries which do not host an agency, Slovakia is one of only two Eurozone members and the only member of the Schengen area which significantly eases access for foreign travellers,” it states.
Bulgaria too is “strongly convinced” that the decision should take the European conclusions into account, as they “clearly state that priority is to be given to achieving a geographical balance in relation to the distribution of agencies across the EU.”
A similar view is expressed by the newest member state, Croatia, which wants the EMA in the capital Zagreb. “We expect this key criterion will be given due weight,” it says, noting that Croatia does not host any EU agency as yet, and that it “fully meets the criterion of the desirability of geographical spread of agencies.”
Also citing criterion six, if less vocally, are Romania – which says that placing the EMA in Bucharest would “meet the 2003/2008 objective that geographical spread is “desirable” – and Poland, which says relocating it to Warsaw will “have the advantage” of meeting the criterion.
Banked up on the other side of the fence are numerous western European member states, including heavyweights such as the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Ireland and Belgium, which acknowledge the geographical spread principle but argue that it should apply only to new EU agencies and take second place to ensuring business continuity at the EMA.
In its bid, the Dutch government, which has put forward Amsterdam as its candidate, says it is “fully aware” of the 2003 and 2008 commitment to geographic spread of the agencies. But it also argues that the relocation of the EMA, a “large and fully operational agency and scientific hub, is unique, in particular also given the uncertainties and circumstances related to the Brexit.”
Noting that in 2012 the European Parliament, council and commission reached an agreement to make relocation decisions on EU agencies more objective, it says that the Netherlands “respectfully believes that the business continuity and retention of expert staff is in this case more essential for the functioning of EMA.”
Germany, which has proposed Bonn as the EMA’s new home, says that while it upholds the geographical spread criterion for new agencies, the present case “involves the relocation of existing authorities.” In the view of the federal government, it says “the need to maintain the EMA’s operations and to ensure a smooth transition are criteria of particular importance” and should be given priority above the goal of geographical spread.
Denmark (Copenhagen) also acknowledges the importance of geographical spread of EU agencies across Europe and concedes that this is “something the EU should ensure when deciding on the location of new agencies. However, relocating EMA is not to be considered a new agency. Continued functionality from day one should be the main objective when a new location is to be decided.”
Ireland says that while it is appropriate to consider the geographical spread of agency seats, “it must be noted that the relocation of an established, high-functioning agency, such as the EMA, which is of such crucial importance to the health of the citizens of the Union, is unprecedented.” In particular, the government says, the relocation must not affect the health protection of the citizens of Europe, and “must provide reassurance to the industry that the continued operation is not disrupted.”
To guarantee this, the assurance of the five preceding criteria must first be addressed prior to consideration of the sixth, geographical spread, it says. It describes the Irish capital Dublin as a “fair and appropriate location to seat the EMA, taking into consideration geographical spread and the ability to ensure business continuity.”
“Geographical spread cannot be a decisive criterion as this is the relocation of an existing agency and not the creation of a new one” – Portuguese government
Also supporting the new agency argument, the Belgian government cites an agreement “in the margins of the European Council in June 2017” that the decision on the EMA’s location should be based on “specified objective criteria” and have “special regard to the fact that the agency already exists and that the business continuity of the Agency is vital and must be ensured.”
In the same vein, Portugal, which switched its backing from Lisbon to Porto at the last moment, says that while the geographical spread principle is “desirable,” it “cannot be a decisive criterion as this is the relocation of an existing agency and not the creation of a new one.”
“With the relocation of EMA’s headquarters to Porto,” it adds, “Portugal will be implementing a policy of geographical spread of European organisms within the country, thus promoting cohesion and territorial enhancement and further connecting citizens with the European project.”
Sweden (Stockholm) also supports the geographical spread principle, but says that “for an existing agency the work in progress must not be disrupted as this could have a negative impact on public health in the EU and serious consequences for citizens and patients as well as for industry.”
Spain (Barcelona) reiterated its “commitment to the criterion of geographical spread for the location of European agencies and organisations that may be created in the future.”
In the case of France (Lille), no mention is made of the merits of criterion six, but the French government says there is an “absolute imperative” to preserve business continuity, “in order to guarantee a high level of research and protection for the health of Europe’s citizens, and that this requires the next country to host the EMA to guarantee the sustainability of its expertise.”
Other countries make less of a meal of criterion six. Italy (Milan), which already hosts two EU agencies notes only that Italy has a “comparatively small number of EU officials working in EU agencies,” while others such as Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal also have two agencies each and others even more.
According to Greece, locating the EMA in Athens would bring the agency’s headquarters to a member state that is “in the immediate neighbourhood of the EU accession countries.” Malta says it would meet the criterion of “desirability of geographical spread” but does not explain why, other than saying that the relocation of an established agency to a small member state would be “a symbol that the EU is close to its citizens independent of the size and geographic location of the member state.”
Austria (Vienna) simply notes that the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights is based in Vienna, and that EU-LISA (the European Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice) runs a technical facility in Austria.
Finland, which already hosts the European Chemicals Agency, says that while it “fully respects” the desirability of geographical spread for new agencies, it believes the “centres of chemical and pharmaceutical regulation should be located in one city.” Having the EMA alongside the ECA in Helsinki “would strengthen both agencies’ strategies, and increase their competitiveness globally,” it suggests.