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Drugs Watchdog in London Courted With Spanish Lessons, Childcare

  • European leaders to disclose criteria for relocation in June
  • Ultimate decision may depend more on politics than logistics

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Brexit is sparking a fight for the European Medicines Agency with almost two dozen countries offering everything from free language lessons to scenic cycling routes and childcare to lure the influential watchdog away from London.

Spain, Denmark and Romania are among the countries extending such perks as part of their pitch to host the regulator and will likely know if they’re chosen this fall. European Union authorities are poised to disclose the criteria that the new location must meet in June.

The competition is fierce, given both the prestige and economic benefits that come with the agency. Finding a new home for the highly-trained scientists and researchers who assess new drugs and examine factories in Europe is critical for the global pharmaceutical industry, which fears a bottleneck developing in this key market. And the agency itself is bracing for a potential exodus as the likelihood of leaving London and uncertainty about the new location prompts some staff departures.

At the end of the day, what a country provides in the form of office space or talent will probably matter less than naked politics.

Nations such as Croatia and Romania that lack an EU agency will feel they are owed. Bigger countries will see an opportunity to land a more prestigious authority or give their economy a boost. Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said he expects “intense competition” for the drugs regulator and calculated that the victor could enjoy a 1 billion-euro ($1.1 billion) lift.

‘Dirty’ Process

“It will get a little bit more down and dirty when the political process kicks in,” said Lars Rebien Sorensen, the former head of Denmark’s largest company and now the envoy for the nation’s campaign to woo the agency.

The European Union last month rejected an effort by the U.K. to keep the agency -- along with the European Banking Authority -- in London after the nation’s decision to leave the EU, arguing that Britain won’t have any say in the agencies’ new locations.

That’s opened the door for rivals. About 21 nations including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Malta have expressed their interest in hosting the headquarters and its staff of almost 900 people. Pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis AG, Pfizer Inc. and Johnson & Johnson last month joined countries in calling for a swift decision.

‘Right People’

The EMA, formed in 1995, is seeking to maintain its stability and efficiency in the face of a battle over its future home. Europe’s equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates a market of more than 500 million consumers and works to ensure the safety of medicines sold across the continent. 

“The agency can be compared to well-oiled machinery that works like an assembly line bringing together the best experts from across the EU to do the right job at the right time with the right people in the right room,” Guido Rasi, the EMA’s executive director, wrote in the latest annual report. “We cannot afford for this machine to start stuttering.”

Spain, which narrowly lost out in the early 1990s when London was picked, is hoping this time will be different, said Belen Crespo Sanchez-Eznarriaga, executive director of the Spanish medicines agency. The nation has identified Barcelona’s 466-foot Torre Glories as a potential home and promised Spanish lessons to staff and their families.

“We were the best option then -- and the best option now,” she said. “Barcelona is more than ready to host the EMA.”

Ireland to Sweden

In Denmark, the former Novo Nordisk A/S boss has spread the word about everything from the country’s quality of life to its hotel capacity, as the organization must accommodate about 36,000 visits from experts each year. Sorensen has taken to Twitter to extol the virtues of Copenhagen and said he’s traveled from Estonia to Belgium to discuss the bid.

The EU will likely look at the best way to foster unity among the 27 remaining EU countries and consider the drugs and banking authorities together, said Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels.

“If the EBA goes to Frankfurt or to Paris, then maybe you could argue this increases the chances for a place like Dublin, for instance, because you’d be looking at a smaller country,” he said. “If the EBA goes to Amsterdam, then maybe a bigger state like Italy would have a better chance.”

Among other contenders is Sweden, whose marketing efforts include a new website with videos highlighting the country’s spirit of innovation and work-life balance. Ireland’s team has identified Dublin’s docklands area as a suitable spot for the agency and believes its proximity to London would give some staff living in the U.K. an opportunity to commute.

The decision is a crucial one. The EMA plays a vital role in protecting public health and supporting the region’s pharmaceutical industry, according to Lorraine Nolan, chief executive of Ireland’s Health Products Regulatory Authority.

“Getting this wrong would mean there’s a very big price to pay,” she said.

— With assistance by Simon Kennedy

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