The vote will take place during the General Affairs Council (Article 50) meeting on Nov. 20, and the winning city is expected to be announced at around 5-6pm Brussels time (see box for the voting system). A few of the original 19 candidate cities have unofficially dropped out of the race, but around 15 are understood to be still interested in winning the agency.
“It is not so much ‘Who is the best candidate?’ as ‘Who is the candidate who is willing to pay the most?’” – national official
The EU authorities had wanted the choice of city to be made on a set of “objective” criteria that were drawn up earlier this year and formed the basis of the bids put forward by the candidates. The six criteria were: assurance that the agency can be set up on site and begin operations on the date of Brexit; accessibility of the location; adequate education facilities for the children of agency staff; appropriate access to the labor market, social security and medical care for both children and spouses; the agency’s business continuity; and the geographical spread of EU agencies.
However, it appears that these considerations – and the preferences of the agency’s staff – may play second fiddle to political bargaining and pressure from eastern European countries that do not currently have an EU agency, to the alarm of many in the biopharmaceutical sector.
Nathalie Moll, director general of the European industry body EFPIA, called on EU member states to “base their decision on supporting the continuity of the EMA’s critical functions, its ability to retain staff and access expert networks.”
With the various technical aspects that need to be managed to ensure continuity of care for patients in relation to Brexit, “Europe must get the EMA’s relocation right,” Moll declared, stressing the need to take the decision “on the basis of essential and objective criteria that place patient health at their core.”
“Horse-Trading All The Way”
The criteria clearly will play a role in the decision – as one national official said, “there are limits to who you want to support.” But member states appear to have descended to vote-swapping in the scramble to secure this prestigious agency. “Now it is horse-trading all the way,” said a national official from one of the candidate countries.
Member states “are trying to sell their votes for favors in other areas, and this makes the whole game very difficult to predict,” the official said. “It is not so much ‘Who is the best candidate?’ as ‘Who is the candidate who is willing to pay the most?’”
Just what kind of favors are being traded is open to speculation, although they are understood to be include jobs in particular EU departments, involvement in health-related or other projects, and so on.
Matters are complicated by the fact that a vote is also taking place on the relocation of another London-based EU agency, the European Banking Authority, in which eight countries have expressed an interest. Countries may well be agreeing to offer a country their EMA vote in return for an EBA vote for them, for example.
As for the likely strongest contenders, a handful of western European countries, including Barcelona, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Vienna, were deemed front-runners by the European Commission in its assessment of the bids earlier this year, and were among those most favored by EMA staff in an internal survey. (Also see "EMA Discloses Staff’s Preferred Host Cities, Amid Fears Relocation Could Batter Its Budget" - Pink Sheet, 9 Oct, 2017.)
Milan has been widely tipped, but Bratislava has also emerged as a strong candidate. In common with some other eastern European countries, the Slovakian capital has made much of the fact that it does not currently have an EU agency, and claims that the “geographical spread” criterion means it should be a firm favorite.
Thomas Lönngren, a former executive director of the EMA who now works as a strategic advisor to the consultancy, NDA Group, agreed that the fact that Slovakia does not have an EU agency would likely play a role in the vote. “When you look at how agencies in Europe have been located over the years, it has been to the existing older member states and the new member states have not got any,” he remarked to the Pink Sheet.
Bratislava scored fairly well on the commission’s assessment, but came very low down in terms of staff preference – the results suggested that if it were chosen, the EMA would likely lose 70% or more of its staff, posing serious problems for the agency’s business continuity and ability to fulfil its functions. (Also see "EMA Paints Nightmare Scenario Of EU System ‘Unraveling’ If Relocation Goes Wrong" - Pink Sheet, 26 Sep, 2017.)
Noting that the Swedish capital Stockholm, for which the survey showed a staff retention rate of just 30-50%, was still in the race for the EMA, the national official said: “It will be very interesting if ends up there. Of course, everyone knows if it ends up in Bratislava then we have a big problem – but how big is the problem if it ends up in, say, Sweden?” How many staff can the EMA afford to lose “without being totally destroyed?” he asked. “That is really the big question, but I don’t think people are really thinking about it.”
However, one former EU official suggested that staff preferences would not matter that much to a country that was determined to secure such a prestigious agency: “When a country’s pride is at stake, the weight of the staff at an agency is less important.”
“It will be quite tight in the first round,” the national official said. “You have no idea if Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Milan, Stockholm will make it to the second round, and it is unclear whether Bratislava will make it to the second round. This makes the second round more unpredictable because it is difficult to make deals if you have no idea who is going to be in the round.”
Lönngren too was unwilling to hazard a guess as to which country might win the agency. “Everybody is asking me what I think. I say I don’t speculate because I have been in this game long enough to know that these kinds of votes are highly unpredictable because you have this kind of voting system, and what is going on behind closed doors, trading between member states… so we have to put our safety belts on and wait for the outcome.”