Brussels and Bratislava face EMA showdown

Brussels and Bratislava are competing to host a lucrative European Union Agency that has to relocate from London after the UK exits the EU.

EU ministers will vote in a secret ballot on November 20th on a new home for the Europe Medicines Agency (EMA), when they also decide the future location of the European Banking Authority -another, smaller EU agency that is also currently based in London.

Brussels, the self-proclaimed “capital of Europe” is the Belgian nomination for the EMA and is also one of eight bids for the EBA. But the fact that Brussels already hosts a lot of European institutions, such as the European Commission and European Parliament, could count against it in next Monday’s much-awaited vote.

There are also claims that Brussels is currently attempting to “trade votes” for a much sought-after seat on the UN Security Council. Belgium has put itself forward as a candidate for a non-permanent seat in the Security Council for the 2019-2020 mandate. It has launched a highly proactive promotional campaign, stating that as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Belgium will actively “promote an ambitious agenda for peace and security at the service of the citizens of the world.”

The UN Security Council is the organ of the United Nations which has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and non-permanent members are elected for a term of two years.

Belgium is candidate for one of the two seats available for the “Western European and Other States”. The elections will take place in June 2018.

A senior official at a leading Brussels-based policy institute said it was “well known” that Belgium had been offering its backing for other cities who are also bidding to host the EMA in return for their support in Belgium’s UN bid.

He said, “This is not supposed to be how such issues are decided. Belgium’s UN bid should be decided solely  on the merit of its case and the same should apply to deciding who hosts the EMA after the UK exits the EU.”

eu relocation
© European Union, 2017

There is also a growing consensus that other member states should also “get their piece of the cake.”

This has gained traction since Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in his recent “state-of-the-union” address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, specially called for a “more unified, cohesive Europe.”

Many argue now that, for the “Juncker Strategy” to be implemented, it is high time that the much sought-after EMA is given to a country from Eastern and Central Europe. Bucharest, Zagreb and Sofia have also thrown their hats into the ring for the EMA but, according to a report last week in the Financial Times newspaper it is Bratislava that has emerged from Eastern and Central Europe as the leading candidate for the region.

The reason, it states, is partly because, of the ten member states that joined in the EU in the “big bang” expansion of 2004, Slovakia is the oldest which does not yet host an EU agency.

The country, unlike some of its neighbours such as Poland, has joined the single currency and is seen as the most supportive of the EU in the region. Slovak PM Robert Fico recently called his country a “pro-European island” in the region.

EU officials warn of uproar if at least one agency is not granted to one of the 10 central and eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004.

Diplomats said that while Bratislava’s bid had gathered momentum it still faces tough competition not just from Brussels but also Milan and others.

The Chief Executive of the EMA in London, Guido Rasi is Italian, and he is said to be trying to play a role in this, but informed sources point out that Italy already hosts two EU agencies: the European Training Foundation in Turin and European Food Standards Authority in Parma. This mitigates in favour of Bratislava on geographical grounds.

Like Barcelona, another candidate, recent moves towards independence and autonomy in Lombardia could count against Milan.

People from Lombardia and Veneto voted last October to have more independence from the central power in Rome. The idea that an EU agency may, at some point in the future have to relocate for a second time because of a Brexit-style withdrawal from the EU does not play well with many. A total of almost €30m has been earmarked for the preparation of the removals alone.

The UK’s former Europe Minister Denis MacShane told this website “it might be best to wait and see what the next developments are in Italian politics and how strong the support for extreme identity populism in regions of Italy really is.”

One British MEP, who did not wish to be named said, “In the interests of an equal distribution of EU Agencies there are very valid grounds for supporting Bratislava’s bid.”

“There is growing support for a Central and Eastern candidate and sharing out the division of agencies more fairly. Brussels is a strong candidate, but Brussels already has the big EU institutions and has bid for not just one but both the agencies and this time round there is a feeling that it should rather be the turn of one of the Central and Eastern European city candidates that is allocated the agency,” the MEP went on to say.

It is not difficult to see the reason why Bratislava and others are so keen to host the medicines agency when Britain leaves the EU in March 2019: it employs 900 staff and receives visits from some 35,000 national regulators and scientists every year.

It has an annual budget of €24m and deciding where it will be housed in the future is seen as a “very big deal” for Europe’s healthcare sector.

According to a briefing by Estonia, current holder of the EU presidency concerning the procedure for voting, in the first round, each country will wield one vote worth three points, one worth two points and one worth one point. Unless a city receives overwhelming support in the first round, the three most popular candidates will go forward to further voting rounds until there is a winner. The vote will be organised as a secret ballot, and many candidates are likely, at least in the first round, to vote for themselves.