Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Analysis

Is bank agency HQ the Brexit 'booby prize'?

Ministers for EU affairs met in Luxembourg on Tuesday (17 October) to discuss the future location of two London-based EU agencies, both of which will have to find a new home after Brexit.

However, while countries offering to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have been very actively presenting their bids in public, those that want to scoop up the European Banking Authority (EBA) have operated almost in stealth mode.

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  • The office of the European Banking Authority in London (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Just look at the press conferences that have been organised in Brussels in the past weeks.

Of the nineteen EU member states that want to have EMA, thirteen held press events to launch their bid, while another three organised group interviews with selected media.

By contrast, of the eight countries that want to host EBA, only Luxembourg has held an official event.

All other EBA-courting member states – Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland – confirmed to EUobserver, through their EU embassies, that they have not held such events, nor have they scheduled them.

Member states' public actions give the impression that the EBA is seen a consolation prize, with the EMA being the big trophy.

This is most visible when looking at the six countries which offer to host both agencies.

Earlier this month, Belgium organised a press conference to present its bid to host the EMA. During his speech, foreign affairs minister Didier Reynders did not mention that Belgium also is a candidate for the EBA.

When asked about this by EUobserver, he said the presentation of the EMA bid came first because the building in which it is foreseen to be hosted, is called The One.

"It's normal to start with the One. Of course we are defending the two dossiers," he said, adding that Belgium will "organise a process" for EBA as well.

"We start with the medicines agency because we are sure that we have very good arguments for that."

But as of Tuesday, the day ministers will discuss the bids in Luxembourg, no EBA-to-Brussels event is planned.

Goodie bags

In September, Austria's EU embassy held an event with health minister Pamela Rendi-Wagner and Vienna city official Renate Brauner, to explain why Vienna is supposedly the best place to host the EMA.

Here too, neither speaker mentioned the EBA, until EUobserver mentioned Austria's bid for it in a question.

"Austria has done two bids, that's right. One for EBA and one for EMA," said Rendi-Wagner. "As a representative of the federal government of Austria of course I have to tell you we have two bids, clearly, but I personally as a minister of health I have a clear preference for EMA."

Journalists were given a goodie bag that included a CD with Austrian music, a booklet on medical history in Vienna, and several printed materials - none of them mentioning the EBA bid.

A display rack at Austria's permanent representation in Brussels offered only booklets on "EMAzing" Vienna, but had no evidence of Austria's EBA bid.

(Photo: Council of the European Union)

The amount of effort that has been spent on promotional material online also supports the theory that winning the EMA is more important than the EBA.

Belgium created a website for its bid to bring the EMA to Brussels, but not for its the EBA bid.

Ireland made a video to attract the EMA, but not one for the EBA.

France has a website and a video to support its bid to host the EMA in Lille, but no similar initiative to bring the EBA to Paris.

And while Germany has made videos for both Bonn (EMA) and Frankfurt (EBA), there is a clear difference in slickness of the websites it set up to promote Bonn and Frankfurt, with the first one being more visual and having its own URL.

Only Poland had a dual approach, with a general video about the advantages of moving to Warsaw, and a website that gave equal treatment to both bids.

Why EMA is the big prize

Polish health minister Konstanty Radziwill, in Brussels recently to promote the EMA bid, chuckled when EUobserver asked him if he would be disappointed if Warsaw would get the EBA instead.

"As a minister of health, my task is working on EMA. As a member of the Polish government, or as a Pole, I would be happy that Poland is seen as a good place for any important European agency."

But he agreed that "one can say" that the EMA, and not the EBA, is the big prize in the contest.

The reason, he said, was that once EMA moves to another place, "many headquarters or representatives of global pharma industry and all sorts of consulting agencies and offices will follow."

The EMA is an agency which employs many more staff – 890 compared to the EBA's 189 – and has more visitors: whoever gets to host the EMA will see some 30,000 hotel nights booked a year, compared to under 9,000 for the EBA.

But that is not what ministers have been willing to admit publicly.

This website has asked many of them who came to promote their bid to host the EMA over the past weeks why their country had not opted to host EBA instead, or as well.

Instead of saying that the EMA simply brings the most benefits, ministers went to great lengths to explain that their countries had the unique characteristics that made it perfect for the EMA.

Solid arguments?

Dutch health minister Edith Schippers answered the Netherlands had "the best location for EMA."

"We have a very good Dutch regulator agency. We have a lot of expertise. … We already have quite a big capacity in our regulatory agency," she said.

But did that then mean that the Dutch were less strong on banking?

"Of course, it's not one or the other, but we chose to make a bid for EMA," Schippers only said.

"Around the grand area of Porto we have a concentration of many startups and enterprises that deal with the health cluster," Portugal's state secretary EU affairs Ana Paula Zacarias said.

So, that means that Portugal's health sector stronger than its banking sector?

"Not exactly. I think our bank sector is doing well. But I believe that in political terms this would be an interesting candidature for us and where we have a good opportunity," said Zacarias.

In it to win it

Slovak telecoms and transport deputy minister Viktor Stromcek was more willing to admit that cities other than his own Bratislava had a more vibrant financial sector.

"We are absolutely sure the other cities are in a better position when we are talking about the banking agency, and it's totally different situation when we are talking about medical agency," he said.

Greek alternate foreign minister George Katrougalos gave a similar explanation, noting that although Greece is "trying now to reinvigorate" the banking sector, it was pretty clear that Greece is not among the top EU countries.

Victor Negrescu, Romanian deputy minister for European affairs, said his country did not want to submit a bid to host the EBA "only for the sake of running".

"Our government has decided to run to host the European medicines agency because this is the field in which we have an expertise. We have a history, we have a tradition … we have even members of the European Parliament that are doctors that have a clue about it," he said.

Italian state secretary for EU affairs, Sandro Gozi, also said that you don't "have to compete for everything".

"Obviously we wanted to focus all our energy and all our attention, and also the taxpayer money on something on which we think we have something special to offer," he said.

Diplomacy

Several of these ministers mentioned Frankfurt, the seat of the European Central Bank, as a logical new home for EBA.

Michael Horn, spokesman for the state of Hessen, where Frankfurt is situated, told EUobserver why his state and country were not hosting promotional events in Brussels.

Instead, they were focussing their efforts on discrete diplomacy.

"We talk to those people who decide," he said.

Read more on EU agencies in EUobserver's 2017 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to access EUobserver's entire magazine collection.

Magazine

The EU Agencies Race

In this edition of EUobserver's Regions & Cities magazine, we take a closer look at some of the EU agencies, exploring how their location matters and the benefits for cities and regions to host them.

Bank agency shuns EU invitations

The EU's banking agency is not visiting cities that want to host the agency post-Brexit "to ensure objectivity". The medicines agency has no such qualms.

Analysis

'Think of the patients!' cry EU agency contenders

Because of Brexit, the EMA has to leave London. Some health ministers lobbying to host it have made an emotional appeal, warning that patient safety could be at risk.

Leaders lobby on EU agencies in summit margins

The official agenda point on where to relocate the EU medicines and banking agencies after Brexit was over in "one minute", but lobbying took place in the corridors.

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