Mindless Brextruction: £500,000,000 down the drain as a sop to politicians’ vanity – and nobody turns a hair!

Mindless Brextruction: £500,000,000 down the drain as a sop to politicians’ vanity – and nobody turns a hair!

A few days ago, the European Union decided to move the European Medicines Agency (EMA) from London to Amsterdam so that it could continue to operate without any damaging interruptions after 29 March 2019 when the UK plans to leave the EU. Britain will be held liable for the relocation costs, estimated at around £500 million. Presumably this counts towards the much bigger Brexit bill, now under negotation,

The future annual income losses will also be very big. The Agency has an annual budget of around £300 million, much of which is spent in the UK. There will be an immediate loss of 900 well-paid EMA jobs and of over 30,000 short-term visitors to London each year to attend events convened by the Agency. It is likely that pharmaceutical companies will also shift their staff who interact with the EMA on a regular basis to Amsterdam.

The EMA was founded in 1995 and, with strong support from the British Conservative government of the time, London was selected for its headquarters.  Its overall responsibility is for ensuring that all human and veterinary medicines available in the EU market are safe, effective and of high quality. It acts as a central point of reference for national regulatory bodies such as the UK’s Medical Health Regulatory Agency.

It seems perverse that the same politicians that have been claiming that leaving the EU would allow the government to increase the effectiveness of the NHS are deliberately leaving an Agency that contributes importantly to better health in Britain. Apart from upholding medicine safety, the EMA’s work brings new medicines to those who need them more quickly, cuts the costs of putting new products on the market, supports pharmaceutical research and promotes innovation especially by small and medium-scale industries. In future Britain may be excluded from EU-wide clinical trials and have to spend more of its already tight health budget on creating and running an expanded national medicines approvals service. British-made medicines will become less competitive if they have to go through separate EU and UK approval processes.

When governments commit large amounts of public money to new projects, they normally weigh up the costs and benefits. In this case, the costs of abandoning the EMA are mind-boggling and there are no tangible benefits whatsoever. The only benefit that Mrs May and her fellow-Brexiteers can claim is that it allows them to continue to crow that “Brexit is Brexit” and that they are acting in line with “the will of the people”. It would be better if they were to commit themselves to act “in the national interest”!

Like so many other aspects of the Brexit process, withdrawing from the EMA is an expensive exercise in national self-harm – in this case damaging not only to the economy but also to people’s health. It is hard to believe that those who voted to leave the EU sought such outcomes.

What is amazing is that, now the damage of the decision to leave the EMA is becoming starkly clear, there has been only muted public criticism. Perhaps the branding of those who criticise the government’s blatantly bad handling of the Brexit process as “mutineers” has created a situation in which opponents fear to raise their voices. It is easier to lie low and not turn a hair.

Hopefully public attitudes will shift, as the material damage caused by our exit from each of the 40 EU specialised decentralised agencies, becomes clear – but, as the EMA process shows, any second thoughts may come too late.

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