Amsterdam, Paris to host key EU agencies after Brexit

Amsterdam and Paris won the right to host the two EU agencies that must leave London on Brexit after a dramatic ministerial meeting in Brussels that left both results decided by drawing lots after votes were tied.
The headquarters of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is seen in London, Britain on April 25, 2017.
The headquarters of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is seen in London, Britain on April 25, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Amsterdam and Paris on Monday (Nov 20) won fierce fights to host two major EU agencies when they leave London, securing some of the most prized spoils of Britain’s decision to quit the EU. 

The European Medicines Agency will relocate to the Dutch city, while the French capital will be the new home of the European Banking Authority, EU ministers decided. 

Both decisions came in a tiebreak after three tense rounds of secret voting, with Amsterdam beating the Italian city of Milan and Paris beating the Irish capital Dublin in a bitterly fought race. 

The two watchdogs, with a total of 1,000 highly skilled jobs between them, are currently based in London’s Canary Wharf district but must leave before Britain quits the EU in March 2019. 

EU President Donald Tusk said on Twitter before the vote that “whatever the outcome, the real winner of today’s vote is EU27. Organised and getting ready for Brexit.”

The Netherlands hailed the decision to relocate the EMA to Amsterdam as “good news for all patients in Europe.”

“It took a while to make the decision and the selection process was intensive, but it shows that the EU27 is able to make good decisions, also after Brexit,” Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said. 

Names out of an urn

Diplomats compared the complex voting process to the annual Eurovision Song Contest. The production’s nail-biting televised voting sequence is one of the most watched TV moments in Europe and is known for its come-from-behind surprises. 

In both cases the results were tied and the names of the two finalists – Amsterdam and Milan in one case, and Paris and Dublin in the other – were written on pieces of paper. 

The winners were then drawn out of a bowl by a member of the Estonian presidency, sources told AFP. 

The battle for both agencies has been bitterly contested, with governments jostling to win the backing of other countries with “hot bargaining” behind the scenes, a diplomatic source told AFP.  But it has also been deeply political.

Carles Puigdemont, the sacked leader of Catalonia, said that Barcelona had been the “favourite” but that the “state had condemned it”, blaming violence over the region’s disputed independence vote. 

There were 16 candidates to be the new home of the EMA, one of the world’s most powerful drugs watchdogs, which employs 900 pharmaceutical experts, biologists and doctors from every corner of Europe. 

There was a smaller batch of eight bidders for the EBA, the banking regulator with 159 staff members. The agency is perhaps best known for its regular “stress tests” on the EU’s financial sector in the wake of the global financial crisis. 

‘Self-inflicted wound’ 

Member states brought out all the stops to extol the merits of their candidate cities, producing glossy brochures and videos and offering a host of perks. 

“We also have a very stylish queen, and enjoy fish and chips,” said a video for Amsterdam’s bid, emphasising a continuity with two famed parts of British life. 

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, delivered an evaluation of the applications in September based on a range of criteria, from transport links to job prospects for spouses and schools. 

But the staff of the agencies in question, already being forced to up sticks from London, had reportedly been nervous about some of the candidates, reportedly including Bratislava, Warsaw, Bucharest and Sofia. 

In an unusually complex procedure – even for the EU – each country had six points to distribute for each agency in the first round of voting, of which three were to be given to their first choice, two to their second and one to their third. 

One diplomatic source said his country had resorted to studying “game theory” to be ready. 

For Britain the departure of the two agencies is an economic and political blow.  “For the UK, its loss is the first self-inflicted wound of Brexit,” said the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament.