EU crushes U.K. hopes of retaining EMA after Brexit

20 April 2017

Nick Paul Taylor / FierceBiotech

The European Commission has again sought to extinguish the United Kingdom’s lingering hopes of keeping the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London after Brexit. Lead Brexiteer David Davis became the latest politician to claim London could retain the regulator earlier this week, only for a spokesperson for the commission to rubbish the idea.

Davis and other members of the British government have generally presented the location of EMA as one of the topics to be decided in its exit negotiations with the EU. Officials in Brussels see things differently. Their take is that the U.K. cannot keep EMA while severing its other ties to the EU, and that the U.K. will have no say in the new location of the agency. That is a decision for the remaining 27 member states. The only role the U.K. has is to ease the transition.

“A matter for the negotiations will be the duty for the United Kingdom to facilitate the transfer of these agencies, helping to ease the practical and financial burden for the experts working there who will have to relocate to another city in the EU,” Margaritis Schinas, a spokesperson for the commission, told BBC News.

Davis’ comment and the commission’s response follow the same pattern as other exchanges that have taken place through the press since the U.K. voted to leave the EU last year. When a politician talks up the merits of keeping EMA in London, typically by citing the central role the U.K. regulator plays in its operation, a representative of the EU or one of its member states points out the impossibility of a key agency being based outside of the territory.

Pockets of U.K. politicians have long since accepted this is the most likely outcome, perhaps even only viable outcome. Talking to fellow politicians in January, U.K. health secretary Jeremy Hunt said it is “likely” the EU will move the headquarters of EMA to outside the U.K. after Brexit. But others have continued to present staying in London as a realistic option. Hunt received criticism for his comments from his peers, some of whom felt he had given up on EMA too easily and too soon.

Whether Davis actually thinks the location of EMA should be part of exit negotiations or is trying to sneak an extra bargaining chip onto the table is unclear, as is the government’s position on how its regulatory system will interact with that of the EU after Brexit. Hunt appeared to give clarity when he said it was most likely EMA would leave London and Britain would leave the EMA. But Davis then said Hunt had been “misreported and misinterpreted”, adding to the list of mixed messages to emerge from members of the ruling party.

Those politicians now face an election. Prime Minister Theresa May called the general election this week, going back on previous assertions that she would do no such thing. The election was due to take place in 2020. And after becoming PM May repeatedly said she wouldn’t pull forward the date, largely because she felt the U.K. needed a “period of stability” after the referendum. Now, May has called a general election to “guarantee certainty and stability.”

If, as polls suggest, the Conservative party May leads significantly increases its majority in the election, it could give her more stability. But for the biotech industry, the near-term fallout from the political u-turn is more uncertainty and a delay in resolving outstanding issues. 

“The coming weeks are a period of further political uncertainty as policy proposals like the government’s industrial strategy and the life science sector’s response to it are formally put on hold for the period of the general election campaign. Similarly any further clarity or certainty on the U.K.’s approach to Brexit will have to await the outcome of the election—and only then become the focus of a debate with the European Union,” BioIndustry Association CEO Steve Bates said in a statement.

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