Europe’s chief drugs regulator got exactly what he wanted when Amsterdam was named the new host of the European Medicines Agency.
Officially, the EMA’s nearly 900 employees had no say on their post-Brexit home. Geopolitics and favor-swapping looked likely to drive the outcome. Yet after just one round of voting by member countries on Monday, it was clear that Executive Director Guido Rasi and his staff’s wishes would be granted: Only cities shown by internal polling to be attractive locations for more than two-thirds of staff — Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Milan — advanced. Regional alliances that could have favored an Eastern or Central European country never materialized.
“I was not in the room to vote, but my understanding [is] that our message — and that the overall message — was very clear,” Rasi told reporters Tuesday. “It was not about relocating a building or an agency. It was about maintaining an established activity, delegated through 31 member states to one institution,” he added, referring to the EU28 and other countries in the region that work with the EMA.
Delivering that message required a careful balancing act, diplomats said, and the 63-year-old Italian nearly took it too far with leaked internal surveys and concerns about the families of LGBT staff.
However, his strategic warnings about the consequences of losing staff appear to have resonated.
“I would have done the same thing if I had been in his shoes” — Vincenzo Salvatore, former general counsel for the EMA
Pharma, patient groups and other parts of the health sector refused to go public with their preferred (and feared) candidates, despite their private preferences for wealthy Western cities.
The most explicit preferences ultimately came from EMA staff, elevated by Rasi.
“I would have done the same thing if I had been in his shoes,” said Vincenzo Salvatore, a former general counsel for the EMA, now counsel at the law firm BonelliErede, who helped push for Milan’s bid. “The take home message was, ‘Be careful because if you move the agency to a place where most people will not move, that may cause a problem.’”
But one EU diplomat called Rasi’s maneuvering a “biased campaign with a potential of spreading panic among the general public.”
‘Below the belt’
Things could have played out very, very differently.
Rather than a runoff among accessible Western cities that would easily attract staff and accommodate EMA demands, the health sector feared an inconvenient political compromise. Newer member countries made a powerful argument that it was their turn, noting the EU’s official policy of spreading agencies around. Most of the six criteria to be evaluated by the Commission focused on business continuity, but the lack of an agency was included as a political outlier. Slovakia gained momentum as the most qualified of those countries.
Not long after 19 countries formally submitted their applications to host the EMA in July, the drumbeat from Canary Wharf started. LGBT staff wrote to EU leaders, worried that they’d be forced to choose between their families and their jobs if the agency moved to a country that doesn’t recognize same-sex partnerships. That meant Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Rasi lent weight to their concerns by calling on all applicants to clarify their policies, and the Central and Eastern European countries faced awkward questions while they presented their bids in Brussels.
The EMA will move outside of Britain after Brexit | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
In September, while the Commission worked on its assessment — promising not to do any sort of ranking or shortlist of the bids, Rasi did his own research. He polled the staff, asking if they were likely to relocate to the each of the 19 cities. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Milan and Copenhagen were the only cities that would draw more than two-thirds of the staff, and the only ones that would allow for a smooth transition.
The bottom eight performers would cause a “public health crisis,” according to an EMA analysis. They were all from far-flung cities, including many in Europe’s Eastern half, and the figures were humiliating: Only 26 percent would move to Helsinki; 14 percent to Bratislava; Warsaw, 10; Bucharest, eight; Sofia, six.
Few believe the EMA’s claims that the figures were meant to be private. The agency posted versions of them online after POLITICO published the documents; an industry source speculated that the leaks were intentional. Days before the Commission’s milquetoast assessment was due, Rasi shared the survey results with EMA staff in an auditorium. The documents circulated around member country embassies and foreign offices, too.
Central and Eastern European diplomats were livid.
“This is one of those blows below the belt that we expected,” one Eastern European diplomat said after Rasi echoed LGBT staff concerns in September.
The first EU diplomat was more blunt on Tuesday.
“The activities and survey by [the] EMA were rather dubious — i.e. campaign on LGBTI rights without even asking what the situation is in the bidding countries, various internal staff surveys and spinning them into the media etc.,” the diplomat said in an email. “Obviously the activities were aimed to influence the process and the results against some candidates.”
Regional indignation hardened the sense among some newer member countries — many of whom were not running and thus had votes to spare — that they needed to stick together.
Another Brussels-based diplomat recalled a heated debate in October where Central and Eastern European officials said the LGBT letter and survey were meant to cast their countries as unattractive. Others tried to calm them by opening a discussion about moving the Eurogroup presidency eastward to show EU solidarity.
Newer members were less upset with another unusual EMA document — “technical comments” to inform the Commission’s assessment, also made public only after leaking, that used color codes to rate applicants’ facilities. It showed Bratislava’s building was in better shape than Vienna’s (and tied with Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Milan for top rating); Stockholm performed as poorly as Sofia.
Rasi largely avoided naming specific bids. When objecting in October that his EU agency shouldn’t have to go somewhere without one because it’s not new, for example, Rasi said he wasn’t trying to avoid a particular country.
The drug regulator’s rank-and-file saw Rasi as their champion in a process intended to silence them.
However, according to an industry official, Rasi pushed for any of the five cities that performed well in the staff survey during bilateral and side meetings at October’s G7 health minister’s gathering. Coincidentally, that gathering was in Milan. Rasi had to formally deny any Italian collusion after meeting with countryman and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani in August.
“I’ve been traveling all over Europe,” Rasi said Tuesday, and “any country” has the capability to foster a brand new agency. “It’s a different thing to maintain an existing [agency] — to lift and move something is different,” he added.
Zagreb withdrew hours before Monday’s vote, complaining that the procedure didn’t take into account all the six technical criteria set by the Council of the EU in June, but “arbitrary findings of the EMA.”
Rasi’s connection to the EMA’s staff runs deep. He repeatedly referred to them as “my people” and praised their resilience during 18 months of uncertainty.
The European Medicines Agency in London | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
The sentiment is mutual. The drug regulator’s rank-and-file saw Rasi as their champion in a process intended to silence them.
“The general consensus is that he played a bad hand as well as he could,” a mid-level staffer said in an email Tuesday. “Our voices could easily have been completely ignored, but his warnings about the risk to business continuity and thus patient health were clearly timely and attention was paid to them.”
While staff celebrated Rasi’s success, even he acknowledged they preferred a different outcome.
But the 2016 Brexit vote means they are all losing the “joyful life we had here” in London.
Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting from London.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misstated the title of Vincenzo Salvatore, a former general counsel for the EMA. He is now counsel at the law firm BonelliErede. An earlier version also misstated which countries don’t recognize same-sex partnerships. They are Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia.