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20th Apr 2018

Magazine

EU agencies: The road to 'douze points'

  • The European Banking Authority is one of two EU agencies that needed a new home after the UK triggered article 50 of the EU treaty. (Photo: EBA)

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and, to a lesser extent, the European Banking Authority (EBA), were the most talked about EU agencies in 2017, with no fewer than 21 countries lobbying to host them after Brexit. How did the EU choose the two new seats for the EMA and the EBA?

April

Mere weeks after the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 of the EU treaty - which kicked off negotiations over the terms of its exit - London still had some hope of continuing to host the two EU agencies. "No decisions have been taken about the location of the European Banking Authority or the European Medicines Agency, these will be subject to the exit negotiations," a spokeswoman for the UK's Brexit department said in a statement. But it was already to no avail: the 27 remaining EU states would not forgo the opportunity of clinching a prestigious agency.

May

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  • Countries showered journalists with brochures promoting their candidate cities. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Past discussions on selecting homes for EU agencies had resulted in ugly quarrels between government leaders. To avoid repeating history, European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker proposed a "recommended procedure" for the relocation of the EMA and the EBA. A draft version from 19 May, seen by EUobserver, introduced the idea of "objective criteria", which would then be the subject of a neutral "assessment" by Juncker's civil servants.

June

On 20 June, EU affairs ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss the procedure. Two days later, it was adopted at a summit in Brussels, with a slight change to the timetable. Instead of October, the final ministerial vote was postponed to November. To emphasise the leaders' unity on the subject, European Council spokesman Preben Aamann tweeted that the debate on the procedure only took four minutes.

July

In a behind-closed-doors presentation to members of the European Parliament, representatives of the medicines agency revealed that the cost of relocating was estimated, in a worst-case scenario, at €528.5 million. A large part of that figure was due to early termination costs for the building lease, which was estimated at €429 million. When signing the rental contract, which does not end until 2039, the EMA failed to include an exit clause.

Meanwhile, several countries had already launched campaigns to promote their candidate cities. On 11 July, the Dutch government and Amsterdam municipal authorities came to Brussels to present their bid to host the EMA.

Then minister for health, Edith Schippers, said there was "strong competition", and made an analogy to the Eurovision song contest, often echoed by other rivals. "We all want the 'douze points'," she said.

Former finance minister Wouter Bos, appointed as ambassador for the Dutch bid, said he could not remember a time in his career "when a European institution was loved so much, by so many".

August

The deadline for countries to register their bids closed on 1 August. Nineteen cities applied to host the EMA: Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Bonn, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Dublin, Helsinki, Lille, Milan, Porto, Sofia, Stockholm, Malta, Vienna, Warsaw, and Zagreb. Eight cities applied to host the EBA: Brussels, Dublin, Frankfurt, Paris, Prague, Luxembourg, Vienna, and Warsaw.

September

The month of September saw a promotional spree by most of the 21 EU countries bidding to host the EMA – while the competing countries that wanted to host the EBA took a more stealth-like approach. At its peak, the scramble for the media's attention saw three EMA events a week. Journalists that attended all presentations were given a total of four kilograms of brochures, as well as souvenirs ranging from small snow globes to mouse pads. Greece even flew several journalists from Brussels to Athens for interviews and a tour of the proposed building.

The presentations in Brussels were also attended by representatives from other countries, who were there to check out the competition. Most of them had asked EUobserver for insight on the competition - the latest rumours and evaluations of their own bids. "There are many talks. Everybody is talking to everybody else," said Italian state secretary of European affairs Sandro Gozi. But politics was still the most important game-changer.

October

Following the European Commission's publication of its assessment of the 27 bids to host the two agencies, disappointment was voiced in some corners. The commission's assessment was little more than a stripped-down version of the countries' original bid presentations, often a summary of what was presented in the bid. The EU's executive had not fact-checked any of the statements made by member states - to the chagrin of some member states. "The commission's assessment was very technical and didn't bring anything essentially new to the race," said Helsinki mayor Jan Vapaavuori.

At a confidential meeting in Brussels, some EU ambassadors criticised the commission's work, saying that the paper it published was "not an assessment". One diplomat reportedly said: "An 'evaluation' is more than just stapling a number of papers together."

During the month, the file moved up the diplomatic ladder, with a ministerial meeting followed by an EU summit of government leaders. Publicly, politicians said little about the procedure. However, some did admit that intensive lobbying took place behind-the-scenes at the summit.

November

On 20 November, EU affairs ministers met in Brussels for a series of voting rounds. They first voted on the new seat for the EMA. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Milan were shortlisted after the first round. Copenhagen was then eliminated in the second round. In a dramatic twist, Amsterdam and Milan tied in the third round. Estonian deputy minister for EU affairs Matti Maasikas, chair of the meeting, then drew a lot. Chance decided - EMA went to Amsterdam.

Voting for the EBA also ended in a tie. After the first round Dublin, Frankfurt, and Paris were left standing. Then, Frankfurt was eliminated. In the last round, Dublin and Paris also received an equal number of votes. Maasikas again drew a lot and the EBA went to Paris.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Europe in Review Magazine.

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