In a dead heat between Amsterdam and Milan, the Italians lost out on hosting the European Medicines Agency (EMA) by the drawing of lots at the European Commission yesterday. But the real loss is for the UK – which has to give up hosting this EU regulatory body before March 2019.
Moving the EMA to the Netherlands is perhaps the best option for the European life sciences industry, but the worst outcome from the UK’s perspective.
Consider the threat to the UK medical research industry. The UK sector has been booming, thanks to many brilliant scientists based here, both foreign and native-born. It relies on foreign investment, particularly by big EU and US pharma companies and institutional investors. And it has access to the largest single market it the world, from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Having the regulators based in our back yard was an added bonus.
There had been talk of giving the EMA host role to an Eastern European capital such as Bratislava, for reasons of political and geographical balance. That would have suited the UK, as Slovakia is unlikely to be able to eclipse the UK’s scientific output. But in awarding it to Amsterdam, the Commission has made an aggressive pitch to challenge UK dominance in this field.
The Dutch have world-class scientists and science institutions (so do we). They have an established pharma sector and have global connectivity, widespread use of the English language, an easy environment for international business, and a government that will now surely prioritise the sector’s needs.
With all this, plus full access to the massive European market and the EMA as the crown jewel, many pharma companies around the world will be looking at Amsterdam with renewed interest. The UK should worry about that.
Some will say I am being too pessimistic, and they will point, quite rightly, to the strengths the UK has which Brexit cannot undo. We host incredibly strong scientific institutions, with Cambridge and Oxford Universities in the lead, but also smaller organisations producing excellent work, such as the Institute for Cancer Research. In addition, there is the inertia factor – Amsterdam may be attractive but the costs of relocating giant pharma operations such as AZ and GSK are too much. They’ll stay because it’s the easier and cheaper option.
The sector is worth at least £30billion a year and employs half a million workers, so there are a lot of people hoping the optimists are right.
Then there is the relocation of the European Banking Authority to Paris, announced on the same day. What that means for the UK’s banks is a topic for another essay.