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View from Brussels: Britain to lose EU medicines agency in Brexit fallout

Leaving the EU, Boris Johnson has said, would mean having one's cake and eating it. However, Brexit is getting serious with the European Medicines Agency's withdrawal from Canary Wharf in London.

When soldiers died in previous wars, his mates quickly gathered to strip him of his possessions and dole them out to each other.  Ghoulish? The man was dead. He had no rights. It was the standard thing.

If Brexit has seemed a bit unreal at times, reality has certainly arrived at Canary Wharf, from where the European Medicines Agency is preparing to move out to a new EU city. What a prize for whoever gets it; what a loss for the British life sciences and pharmaceuticals industry, one area where British industry is a true global player.

Together with the European Banking Authority, the European Medicines Agency represented the British share of the autonomous agencies that dot the EU and have a regulatory/advisory role for EU legislation in their respective area. The European Environmental Agency, for instance, is based in Copenhagen. Some are more important than others and the EMA is certainly in that category - it represents a one-stop shop for medicines authorisation across the EU.  

With the pharma industry already struggling with regulatory overload and the high costs of clinical trials, the ability to go to London to get your medicine authorised, rather than 27 different capitals, each with a different regulatory regime, was a boon. The powerful British pharmaceutical industry certainly benefited from a common regulatory regime and it can’t have done them any harm that the agency was based down the road, as it were. That was the specific benefit of having the EMA in London. There was also a more general effect.

The EMA (along with European Banking Authority) brought to London a thousand highly qualified regulatory professionals who in turn had families to be resettled. There would have been a ripple effect and helped to burnish London’s brief reputation as the capital of Europe (based mainly on the finance and technology industries, to be sure). London’s hotels and conference industry gained from medicines industry professionals visiting from around the world.  

Did Michael Gove and Boris Johnson give this a thought in their fevered campaign for Brexit?  Is this consistent with Johnson’s claim that Brexit would mean having one’s cake and eating it?

To add insult to injury, the EU has presented the UK with a £520m bill to cover the rent for the vacated premises until 2039, as the officials who negotiated the original settlement deal failed to write a break clause into their contract with the local landlords. 

Twenty two EU nations are now fighting for the right to be the new headquarters of the EMA. Some have a greater chance than others.   

Dublin stakes its claim on being an English-speaking city in the same time zone as London and so minimising disruptions; Frankfurt is in there, too; while Paris talks about its cultural offerings and the fact that it’s the headquarters for four of the eight largest banks in the EU.

Stockholm’s claim, meanwhile, is based on the fact that it already hosts the European Centre for Disease Control and the fact that its domestic medicines authorisation authority was, along with Britain’s, one of the main players in setting up and sustaining the EMA back in 1995. The British and Swedish life sciences industries have long been closely intertwined. AstraZeneca is perhaps the most high-profile example of this close relationship: it was founded as a merger between the Swedish company Astra and Britain’s Zeneca (itself the result of the ICI demerger) in 1999. The Karolinska Institute is also one of the world’s top medical universities and Sweden of course awards the Nobel Prize in medicine.

The Swedish bid for the EMA comes at a time when its ministers are busy criss-crossing Europe, trying to build new alliances now that its chief protector and friend in the EU, Britain, is abandoning it.  

Getting the EMA would be some sort of consolation prize. Of course, France and Germany, both with much bigger political clout than Sweden, are also bidding for the agency. 

The European commission will make up its mind in September. Look to its choice to see how the Big Two will throw their weight around in the post-Brexit EU.

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