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The European Medicines Agency’s new home will be Amsterdam.

European Medicines Agency will move to Amsterdam

In the end, after three rounds of voting, it came down to a proverbial coin flip between the Dutch capital and an Italian fashion hub. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), charged with evaluating human and animal medicinal products for the European Union, will relocate to Amsterdam after it was selected in a draw of lots between it and Milan. The European Council announced the result on Monday evening after voting had taken place in Brussels. “It’s not very Dutch to be proud of the Netherlands,” says pharmacologist Adam Cohen, who heads the Centre for Human Drug Research in Leiden, the Netherlands. “But I always thought it was the best place for it.”

Among the European Union’s most important scientific agencies, EMA was seen as one of the biggest spoils up for grabs after the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union made its more-than-2-decade-old London location untenable. Set up in 1995, it employs about 900 people and hosts tens of thousands of visitors for hundreds of meetings each year.

Nineteen countries vied to be EMA’s new home, though three later dropped out. Candidate cities produced glossy videos and websites highlighting their international connections, quality of life, and international schools. But as is often the case in the European Union, much political horse-trading was also expected to play a role in the final decision. The council was also voting today on a new home for the European Banking Agency and no country was allowed to host both agencies.

On Monday, the ministers of the 27 countries that will remain in the European Union met in Brussels to cast their votes at the General Affairs Council in a complicated voting process. In the first round, each country had six votes, with three going to the city of first choice, two to the second, and one to the third. After two rounds of voting only Amsterdam and Milan, Italy, advanced to the last round, which ended in a tie (with one country not casting its vote). The two cities were placed on lots in a bowl, and Amsterdam has its drawn.

The move of EMA has raised concerns that it could slow down the approval of new drugs, especially if a lot of staff decide not to move with the agency. But in an assessment by EMA, Amsterdam was one of six candidate cities that met all requirements. It also scored highly in a survey of its employees that EMA undertook. If EMA had ended up someplace other than Amsterdam, it would probably have coped, Cohen says. “But it would have had to cope with a lot more problems regarding travel and language, and losing staff.”

At a press conference on Tuesday morning in London, EMA Executive Director Guido Rasi expressed relief. “The decision is very welcome,” he said. “For the past one and a half years we have been living in uncertainty.” Amsterdam offers great connections, housing, hotels, and infrastructure, he pointed out, and 81% of EMA staff had indicated they would move to the Dutch capital, more than for any other city. However, that still means EMA will lose up to 200 people, Rasi cautioned. If those losses occur in a few specific areas of expertise, it might cause disruptions.

The move itself is also a challenge. "It’s an extremely tight time frame,“ said Noel Wathion, who leads EMA's relocation task force. Operations in Amsterdam are scheduled to start by 30 March 2019. By that time, EMA's conference facilities should be available in a new building, but office space might take a little longer. EMA will have to continue paying rent for its London offices because the contract runs until 2039, an estimated total of €400 million.

U.K. medical researchers have not been shy about their unhappingess with this outcome of the Brexit vote. For the United Kingdom the move is bad news, John Hardy, a geneticist at University College London said in a statement to the British Science Media Center in London, and not just because of jobs moving away. “A greater impact will be the tug this exerts on the pharmaceutical companies as they weigh up where to make their clinical research investments,” he argued. “Over time, this is likely to lead to a disinvestment in the UK of pharmaceutical industry jobs and this has been a major source of revenue and employment for the UK.”

*Correction, 20 November, 4:45 p.m.: This story originally referred to a coin flip as deciding where the agency would move, but EU officials clarified that the names of both cities were placed in a bowl and Amsterdam's was drawn.

*Update, 21 November, 7 a.m.: Comments made at EMA's press conference have been added.