The Commedia Dell'Arte of the EMA Relocation

Mar 12, 2018
Relocating the European Medicines Agency was always going to be hard—but no-one ever expected it to degenerate into farce. 
The shockwaves of that UK referendum, with its unintended consequence of obliging the agency to leave London, are still reverberating across the European Union nearly two years later—and not just because of the sheer administrative hassle, or because of the inevitable dip in the agency's performance. Now, in mid-March, the challenge has become all the more acute, with national rivalries turning the entire process into something akin to cheap theater.
Over recent weeks, festering resentment in Italy over Milan's failure to win the prize of hosting EMA has turned to fury as the winning candidate, Amsterdam, has had to resort to increasingly desperate improvisations to live up to its promise of a smooth transition. Not only did Amsterdam's bid already lack a suitable new building for the agency to move into on Brexit day, but it has had to re-invent its stop-gap solution because that too proved inadequate to meet the agency's needs even on a temporary basis. Milan is particularly aggravated because it was pipped at the post when the final decision was made not by a rational evaluation of the two rival bids, but by drawing one of the names out of a hat. 
Milan's backers—even at the level of the Italian government—have pounced on the Dutch deficiencies to demand a re-think. Milan has an iconic building ready and waiting, they point out. And they are bolstering their case with arguments that the method for the final choice was so absurd as to invalidate the decision. They have also marshalled their compatriots who sit in the European Parliament, to mount a parallel campaign for a re-run of the contest, on the basis that the voice of MEPs was not adequately taken into account—rendering the procedure unconstitutional.
So with just over one year until Brexit, the future location of one of the EU's most-respected agencies is still clouded with doubt. At its best, there will be a frantic rush to move the agency into temporary office space (still being prepared) near Amsterdam's main rail station by the start of 2019, and then, nine months later, into the 15-story permanent office, on which construction has not even started yet. And the worst-case scenario is not that there will be some delay and slippage on those dates. The worst-case scenario is that constitutional arguments may require a re-run (there are still at least two separate legal challenges now before the European Court of Justice, and the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers have still not signed off on the Amsterdam move). 
Just as the European Parliament was about to vote on the issue in mid-March, a legal opinion from a leading academic expert on European law emerged claiming that the selection procedure is in breach of EU law. 
If the stakes were not so high—in terms of the operations of the agency, and its contribution to European citizens' health—the situation might be considered comical. It is impossible, in such circumstances, to forget that the traditional stock characters of Commedia dell'Arte featured foolish old men, devious servants, officials full of broken promises and false bravado, know-it-all doctors, and greedy money-makers.
Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium 
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