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21st Apr 2019

Sofia offers low-cost home for EU drugs agency

  • "Relocating EMA to Sofia doesn't mean sending the agency somewhere to the periphery. It means sending it to one of the oldest countries on our continent," said Bulgaria's deputy health minister. (Photo: Kaj17)

In the race to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA) when it leaves London after Brexit, Bulgaria has launched a low-cost campaign to prove that it could do just as well as the others - but for less money.

"Cost-effectiveness will be key," deputy minister of health Miroslav Nenkov said, while presenting Sofia's bid in Brussels on Tuesday (19 September).

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The Bulgarian capital says it will build the EMA seat in a high-tech park between the city centre and the airport, and offer a one-year rent-free lease to the agency.

The deputy minister insisted that "maintenance costs are much lower" in Bulgaria, where services such as internet and transportation are "fast and cost-effective".

For the promotional campaign - named "Sofia, the place to be" - the Bulgarians are spending "less than €50,000," Nenkov said.

Bulgaria, which will play a leading role when it takes the six-month EU presidency in January, is determined to prove that cheap does not necessarily mean bad.

"Sofia is becoming a business and digital city," said the city's deputy mayor, Doncho Barbalov, who added that it is one of the fastest-growing capitals in the world and attracts 54 percent of investments in the country.

Deficit of notoriety

But in a race that includes cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Athens or Vienna, Sofia's bid also has to face a deficit of image and notoriety.

"It will be the biggest problem for the decision," Nenkov told EUobserver, admitting that "Bulgaria doesn't get good press in the EU."

But he argued that his friends who live there find it "nice, safe and cheap".

In any case, he noted that the "geographical spread" - the balance between member states hosting agencies - will be an important criteria.

Nenkov insisted that Bulgaria, a South-Eastern Balkans country that joined the EU in 2007, is the "most EU-optimistic" country and still does not host an EU agency.

"If the agency comes, it will be justice for my country," he said.

"Relocating EMA to Sofia doesn't mean sending the agency somewhere to the periphery. It means sending it to one of the oldest countries on our continent," he said,

"All offers deserve respect," he insisted. "We need to be positive."

Tailored building

Bulgaria also has to convince the EMA staff that they would benefit from moving from London to Sofia.

On the website set up for the EMA bid, Bulgaria defines itself as a "modern, tolerant and fast-developing society", where "60 percent of the workforce speaks more than one foreign language" and where taxes are at a flat 10-percent rate.

Nenkov and Barbalov said that Sofia airport has flights to 83 international destinations and that children of staff members can be educated in the already-existing foreign schools.

They promised a "really high level of staff security."

They also argued that since the EMA relies very much on the work of national experts in member states, "it's irrelevant where they are situated".

The Bulgarian government has also promised that the EMA building would be ready in January 2019 - two months before Brexit happens.

"We have the power and opportunities to finish the building for when EMA moves," Nenkov said, without giving any plans or details.

He promised that Bulgaria "can build this building absolutely tailored to the needs of EMA."

LGBT rights

Another issue for EMA staff is the status of LGBT people in Bulgaria, which is a country that doesn't recognise same-sex unions.

Nenkov said that "LGBTs are not discriminated" in the country and that "they can live together like families".

"We will not force partners to get out," he added.

Later this month, a Bulgarian government delegation will travel to London to meet EMA's chief, Guido Rasi, and staff representatives, to present their bid.

The European Commission is expected to publish its assessment of the 19 candidacies to host the EMA - as well as the eight bids for the European Banking Agency which is also leaving London - before the end of the month.

Then it will be up to EU countries to make a choice, after a process that many have compared to the Eurovision song contest.

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

Click here to access EUobserver's entire magazine collection.

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