The headquarters building of the European Medicines Agency, EMA,in background right, in London, Friday, July 28, 2017. The EMA will be relocated from Britain, and European Union cities are currently applying to host the European Banking Authority and EMA headquarters in the future and the closing date for applications is Monday, 31 July.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
© AP

Bratislava and Milan have emerged as frontrunners to host the EU’s medicines agency after Brexit, in a fiercely contested lobbying battle that will come to a head this month.

Senior diplomats said the bids by Slovakia and Italy stood out in a crowded field battling for the European Medicines Agency, with 19 countries competing against them. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are also seen as tough contenders.

The London-based EMA is perceived as the jewel in the crown among more than 40 specialised EU agencies. It has 900 full-time staff and receives visits from some 35,000 national regulators and scientists each year because of its vital role in approving new medicines for sale on the EU market.

Ministers will vote in a secret ballot on November 20 on a new home for the EMA, when they also decide the future location of the European Banking Authority — another, smaller EU agency that is also currently based in London.

The economic heft of the EMA, and the prestige of hosting it, have prompted what one diplomat described as a “massive” lobbying effort now reaching its climax.

Diplomats said Bratislava’s bid had gathered momentum despite a lukewarm reception from the agency itself, which has warned that more than 70 per cent of staff might leave if it is moved to the Slovak capital.

The Slovak bid is seen by officials as the strongest from central and eastern Europe, a region which is under-represented in EU agencies. Slovakia, a member of the eurozone, is also viewed in Brussels as a bastion of at least some pro-EU feeling in a region increasingly hostile to European integration. Bratislava is within commuting range of Vienna, which is itself mounting a bid for the agency.

EU officials warn of uproar if at least one agency is not granted to one of the 10 central and eastern European countries that have joined the EU since 2004.

While EU leaders earlier this year agreed on practical criteria for bids for the two agencies — such as operational continuity — in practice the process has dissolved into furious horse-trading.

One national official said the search for votes had become entangled with bargaining over future top EU economic jobs, Brussels policy initiatives, and even posts at non-EU bodies such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Diplomats said Italy had gone as far as offering more troops for new Nato battlegroups in the Baltic states in exchange for votes from the region for Milan. The Italians have also benefited from problems with the rival bid from Barcelona — another southern European metropolis — which has been blown off course by the Catalan crisis. Northern Europe is divided between a number of competing bids.

The banking authority is the centre of a smaller, but still fierce, struggle, with eight countries having made bids. Dublin, Frankfurt and Paris are seen as the frontrunners to secure the EBA, which has close to 200 staff and plays an important role in setting common bank regulatory standards.

All the bidders will also have to contend with an extremely unpredictable voting system, in which countries will pick first, second and third choice candidates.

In the first round, each country will wield one vote worth three points, one worth two points and one worth one point. Unless a city receives overwhelming support in the first round, the three most popular candidates will go forward to further voting rounds until there is a winner.

The vote will be organised as a secret ballot, and many candidates are likely, at least in the first round, to vote for themselves. Some diplomats warn that nations may even try to game the system by using votes to favour weaker candidates, in an attempt to tilt the playing field in the second and subsequent rounds.

Letters in response to this article:

Italy is host to two EU agencies already / From Barbora Tomanova, Bratislava, Slovak Republic

Lombardy’s separatist leanings are also relevant / From Kiritkumar Lathia, Waterloo, Belgium

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