Sunday

29th Mar 2020

Interview

EU agencies criteria - a big step forward

  • The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, based in Bilbao, annually presents its work to citizens on Europe Day. (Photo: EU-OSHA)

Twenty-one member states are eager to host one or both EU agencies that will be forced to leave London after Brexit. But according to Ellen Vos, professor of European Union law at Maastricht University, there is little evidence-based rationale behind that scramble.

"Member states think it is lucrative to host an agency," she told EUobserver in an interview in her office in the Dutch city of Maastricht. "It is often said that hosting an EU agency leads to economic benefits for the host country, but as far as I know there has never been any scientific research that proved that hypothesis."

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However, hosting an agency does bring prestige, "it puts your country on the map," she said.

Vos is an expert on EU agencies, and leading project partner of an international academic research network that focuses on them. In a recent call for papers, the network had to refuse a number of people, which Vos said shows "how surprisingly much scientific interest there is in this issue of EU agencies."

Agencification

The research community speaks of "agencification", a process whereby more and more executive power is transferred to bodies not located in Brussels. "Sometimes member states prefer setting up an agency because of a mistrust towards the European Commission and Europeanisation," said Vos. "If powers are delegated to an agency, an advantage for member states is that the management board of the agency often consists of representatives of member states."

The more than forty agencies and so-called joint undertakings are largely unknown to the general public, she said.

However, Vos questioned whether agencies should exert much effort in trying to show their work to citizens and "form a dialogue" with them. "I'm sure agencies want to, but should they?"

She called on agencies to be realistic. "You can only spend your budget once. Maybe the European Union as a whole can take up that task, but should each individual agency be responsible for a communication strategy? I haven't made up my mind yet about that, but I doubt it."

Vos added that she thought the news reports about the forced relocation of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and European Banking Authority (EBA) will lead to a greater citizens' awareness of agencies.

The professor praised the EU institutions' publication of a set of objective criteria to help determine the new seats of the EMA and EBA as "a big step forward".

Geographical spread

The six criteria are: completion of new office by the date of Brexit, accessibility of the location, presence of international schools, job opportunities for spouses, business continuity, and "geographical spread". The last one refers to past promises that agencies should be divided between member states as much as possible, particularly in those that do not host agencies yet.

"In recent years, the geographical distribution has been a guiding principle," Vos said. "I don't think it will be anymore, nor should it. I think we should determine where an agency can best fulfil its tasks, and accessibility plays an important part."

She adds: "If you host the European Medicines Agency in a place that is difficult to reach, not only experts but also patient organisations with smaller budgets will perhaps have trouble visiting."

The EU commission is expected to publish an assessment of the bids - based on the criteria - by the end of September, which means Saturday (30 September) by the latest. Member states will discuss the assessment in October and are due to vote on the relocation in November.

However, Vos noted that "in the end" objective criteria alone will not determine the new EBA and EMA seats, but instead, "a lot of politics and strategic interests will be involved".

Infographic by Council of the European Union. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Regions & Cities Magazine.

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