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Drugs agency move to Helsinki could open door to merger

  • Helsinki already hosts the European Chemicals Agency. (Photo: European Chemicals Agency)

If EU member states decide that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) should be relocated from London to Helsinki, this might open the door to a merger with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is already based in the Finnish capital.

Opportunities for "synergies" between the two agencies exist, the speakers repeated several times during a presentation of Finland's bid for EMA on Thursday (28 September).

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"Of course, like all other cities, and all other countries, we have a local and national agenda because we are applying for this one. But I can say that we also have a European one," said Helsinki's mayor, Jan Vapaavuori, at the presentation in Brussels.

"I think there [is] no other agency which [can] have a better synergy together with the medicines agency than the chemicals agency."

Mikko Alkio, project manager and adviser for Finland's campaign, added that the two agencies are "very similar", as they both "relate to chemistry".

"[The] more and more we have been reviewing this, the more we are convinced there are more synergies," said Alkio.

Possibilities for synergy include "pooling staff and expertise", as well as sharing IT infrastructure.

Alkio stressed that the Finns "acknowledge very well that these are two different agencies" and that a decision on a possible merger is up to the EU institutions, as well as EMA, and ECHA.

But: "Maybe one day, if the EU institutions would decide so, these two agencies could be located in the same building," said Alkio.

EMA has been located in London since it was set up in the mid-1990s, but it will have to be moved to another location because the UK is leaving the EU.

ECHA has been based in Helsinki since it started operating in 2007.

Some member states that currently do not host any agency, say that this should be taken into account in the decision process to select a new home for EMA.

But Helsinki's mayor, Jan Vapaavuori, said the "geographical spread" of agencies across the EU is "only one" of six criteria that have to be fulfilled by the new home of EMA.

"According to our understanding, it is by far not the most important criteria," he said.

No strategy

Agencies expert Ellen Vos, a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, told EUobserver recently that there "has never been a strategy for agencies".

"The United States has a Food and Drug Administration, while, in the EU, food and medicine are split up between two agencies. That is something you could have considered doing differently," said Vos.

She warned against having agencies with too narrow a focus, referring to a scandal involving breast implants.

"After the PIP scandal, some called for an agency for medical devices. But if you create an agency for everything, it becomes too fragmented," said Vos.

Good idea, but not in my country

There is no common definition of which EU bodies are agencies.

But with 45 of them as members of the EU Agencies Network, sometimes questions are raised about whether there are too many.

The possibility of merging some EU agencies has come up before, but it has always fallen apart when it came to the final decision.

"Member states will say: 'yes, it's a really good idea, we should look at the number of agencies - maybe we could merge a few'," British centre-left MEP Derek Vaughan said last year at a conference about EU agencies.

"But once you point to the agency in their country, then they change their mind. They always change their mind," the MEP then added.

If ECHA and EMA are based in the same country, Finland would likely be less inclined to block a merger.

The same could be argued for placing EMA in Italy, which hosts the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Helsinki and Milan are both competing to host EMA, as are 17 other cities.

Last Monday (25 September), Italy also gave a presentation about its bid, and it too pointed to the potential for a scientific hub.

It noted that the EU's Joint Research Centre is based in Ispra, and EFSA in Parma.

The JRC would be around 70 kilometres away from the proposed EMA building in Milan. The EFSA offices would be around 130 kilometres away.

Prosciutto

It is not the first time that Italy and Finland are both competing for the same agency.

In December 2001, then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi reportedly blocked the location of EFSA in Helsinki.

"Parma is synonymous with good cuisine. The Finns don't even know what prosciutto [Italian ham] is. I cannot accept this," Berlusconi reportedly said at an EU summit.

Two years later - at a summit packed with deal-making - Berlusconi got his EFSA, whereas ECHA went to Helsinki as a compromise.

Although there are 17 other member states competing, it would certainly be historic irony if a showdown happens between Milan and Helsinki and member states decide that EMA is better located near ECHA instead of EFSA.

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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