The EMA’s Unhappy Divorce

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Applied Clinical Trials

Of the 28 European Union member states, nine did not make an offer to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA) by the July 31 deadline-and one of them is very sorely missed, writes Peter O'Donnell.

Of the 28 European Union member states, nine did not make an offer to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA) by the July 31 deadline-and one of them is very sorely missed.

There are 19 suitors for EMA, keen to grasp the economic benefits, the prestige, and the policy influence that the agency confers. Many of them are obvious suspects, and, at first glance, the likely winners are not hard to spot. Don’t put money on it yet, but the chances are that the agency will wind up in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Dublin, Lille, Milan, Stockholm, or Vienna.

Helsinki could have been a good bet if it wasn’t just a little bit too far away. Barcelona would have stood a good chance if it wasn’t the regional capital of Catalonia, currently in the midst of a feverish bid to break away from Spain-too hot to handle. Bonn has many advantages, but the German government hasn’t been pushing it very hard, as it seems to be keener on winning the (simultaneous) competition to host the other European Union (EU) agency to be displaced from the UK by Brexit, the European Banking Authority. Brussels is just too full of EU institutions already, so politically unlikely even if administratively convenient. Portugal seemed to be in with a good case until a few days ago, when a last minute internal political spat obliged it to shift the candidacy from Lisbon (good) to Porto (utterly unprepared). Might Warsaw have been in the final cut if the current Polish government hadn’t been so determined to offend nearly everyone else in Europe right now? No one will ever know, I suspect.

And as for the other candidates… with no disrespect for the merits and charms of Athens, Bratislava, Bucharest, Sofia, Malta, and Zagreb, they are likely to be excluded for a combination of factors ranging from remoteness to limited infrastructure, or to still being in the process of establishing a reputation for reliability.

So, who didn't apply? The three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania-all small, fairly remote, and with plenty of other priorities at present. Hungary, also currently intent on developing a persona non grata status in the EU. The Czech Republic, which is focusing on winning the banking agency for Prague, and Luxembourg, with similar ambitions. Slovenia, small and remote. And Cyprus, small and even more remote.


That only makes eight. The ninth member state that didn’t apply was of course the UK, the unfaithful lover, leaving the jilted EMA to find itself a new home. How much EMA regrets the split (although it is bound by diplomatic modesty from really expressing how it feels)! It speaks only of “the uncertainty and workload implications.”

“Preparing for the move, managing the necessary changes, and addressing challenges such as possible losses in skilled and experienced staff, in a proactive and efficient way requires considerable internal resources,” said Noel Wathion, EMA’s Deputy Executive Director and head of EMA’s Brexit task force, as the contest began. EMA will have to take the difficult decision to reallocate the available resources as needed to maintain its priority activities over the next years.” Already the agency has started to scale back some activities and to temporarily suspend others, including developing the European Medicines Web Portal, work on a project that will allow applicants to securely submit electronic authorization requests for medicines, and a roadmap of future transparency measures.

If EMA is the jilted lover, the unfaithful UK may well come to regret, with hindsight, how it thoughtlessly abandoned this precious longtime companion, and how it has jeopardized its links with many of EMA’s friends and associates. The outcome of the contest to take in the distressed lover is still uncertain-but one thing is absolutely incontestable: not a single person in the UK who voted for Brexit was even remotely aware of what they were throwing away.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.