Barcelona by night

Barcelona, Spain, officials feel they deserve to host EMA because the city narrowly lost out when London was selected.

Moyan Brenn, Creative Commons

At least seven countries are jockeying to host EU's medicine watchdog after United Kingdom leaves

When a relationship ends, there are usually just two people to fight over who gets what. Not so with Brexit. The United Kingdom hasn’t even triggered the negotiations to end its membership of the European Union, but already half a dozen countries are jockeying to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA), currently located in London. This week, the Dutch government became the latest to announce it wants to host the influential regulatory agency once Brexit is a done deal.

In a Q&A posted with the announcement (Dutch), the government noted that Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, and Malta have all said they will seek to host EMA. But Spain, Denmark, Germany, and Finland have unofficially expressed an interest as well. Other countries, like France, may still come forward.

Set up in 1995, EMA employs about 900 people, making it one of the biggest EU agencies; it has a €300 million annual budget and draws some 65,000 visitors to more than 500 international meetings every year.

The decision on where to move EMA will be made by the European Council, comprised of the leaders of the remaining 27 member states, after what is expected to be extensive political negotiations. An EMA spokesperson says the agency has made a list of things the new location should have. It includes good transport links, a large enough building, and hotel capacity nearby. "For our staff we need sufficient housing, access to international/European schools, employment opportunities for spouses/partners in a safe location," the spokesperson adds.

Observers say it is far too early to consider which country best meets those demands. But moving the agency will be a “Herculean task” requiring lots of planning, says Martin Munte, president of the Austrian Pharmaceutical Industry Association in Vienna, so an early decision could help to keep disruptions to a minimum. "I know for a fact that the agency will lose half its collaborators when it moves,” says pharmacologist Adam Cohen, who heads the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, the Netherlands. “You have to rebuild it completely, wherever it moves."

Many of the candidates believe it's never too soon to start lobbying. Milan, Italy, Mayor Giuseppe Sala traveled to London in July 2016, weeks after the Brexit vote, to make a pitch. Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría said the same month that the Spanish government would "fight for Barcelona as the seat of EMA." Several governments have set up working groups to strengthen their bids. All have their arguments lined up. Barcelona feels it deserves the agency because it came in second when London was chosen. Eastern European countries can point to the dearth of EU agencies in their region. German pharmaceutical associations say Bonn is perfect because it's already the home of the Federal Institute of Drugs and Medical Devices, which is larger than EMA. The Dutch government says its central location and excellent connections at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport make it an ideal hub; it also suggests that the Netherlands deserves EMA as "compensation" because the country's economy will be harder hit by Brexit than most. How much any of these arguments will matter is anyone’s guess. 

And then of course there is still the faintest of hopes, shared by many scientists, that the move won't be necessary because the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom can be rekindled. “If Brexit didn’t happen, that would be the best thing,” Cohen says. “But assuming the world intends to do something this stupid, then you have to move the EMA.”

*Update, 22 January, 6:40 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from an EMA spokesperson.