First published in AMS business magazine. Authors: Hans Kops

EMA: The move to Amsterdam

‘The timeframe is tight, very tight actually,’ says the European Medicines Agency's Executive Director Professor Guido Rasi in a telephone interview from its current offices in London’s Canary Wharf. ‘We first have to move to a temporary address at the beginning of 2019, while we wait for the completion of our new premises, purpose-built to our needs, in Amsterdam’s Zuidas by the end of the same year. It is our ambition – and that of our partners, the Dutch authorities and the City of Amsterdam, I am happy to say – to have this organisation operating there at full-speed again by June 2020. This is important for the benefit of public and animal health in the European Union, and essential for the continuity of this knowledge-based organisation.’ 

It is a much discussed side-effect of the upcoming Brexit: given that the UK chose to leave the EU by 2019, all UK-based EU-institutions must be relocated. EMA is a prestigious organisation, so it’s no surprise that 19 out of the 27 EU-member states were anxious to accommodate it. But after intensive deliberations and multiple ballots at the highest European political level, EMA’s new location became the Netherlands – and more specifically, Amsterdam.

Guido Rasi EMA

Photo: European Medicines Agency Executive Director Professor Guido Rasi

Professor Rasi shares his satisfaction on the outcome with many of his 900+ co-workers and their families. ‘In our first survey held among our employees, it was the favoured location. And according to our most recent poll, only 3% said no to moving to Amsterdam and 47% decided in favour of it. It is our challenge to pull the remaining half over the line, and the choice of Amsterdam helps with that. Amsterdam, plus its surrounding area, sort of sells itself – and that is an important feature for an organisation that depends on the (often irreplaceable) knowledge and expertise of its staff. So, although the numbers are not yet clear, we expect more of our co-workers (and their families) to join us than the initial estimates indicated. We’re aiming for 80% and are hoping for more. And the evidence supports this – there’s been a positive effect in the number of job applications that we’ve received since people have known that we’re moving to Amsterdam. More people than ever have applied for a job with us. One of the reasons is that they prefer to start their EMA career in an Amsterdam setting.’

A specialist taskforce to help EMA's move

Awaiting the relocation of EMA, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. On the agenda of the Dutch EMA Relocation Taskforce are 40 different items, all of which take priority and all of which are complex in their own way. In addition to the physical relocation process – not to mention overseeing the design and construction of a completely new building in record-time that suits the future needs of a regulatory agency that is roughly to Europe what the FDA is to the US – there is the challenge of accommodating all the hard to replace ‘brains’ and their families. For this, a special helpdesk – manned by professionals from amsterdam inbusiness, IN Amsterdam and external relocation experts – has been assigned to help. ‘That was a smart move,’ says Rasi. ‘For many who haven’t decided yet, it is important to know that affordable housing is available for them and their families, and that their loved ones can find jobs in the business community nearby or can be placed in international schools with a suitable curriculum. Although housing in the direct vicinity of the city centre seems a bit of a challenge, this part of the relocation process appears to be obstacle-free in most respects.’

EMA office

Other important elements to consider are the connectivity and the business and academic environment in which EMA has to (co)operate. The first is of utmost importance, since delegates from all over the world meet at EMA to present evidence to its committee that decides whether a proposed new medicine should be allowed to enter the European healthcare market.

On top of that, EMA is actively involved in preauthorisation activities, organises scientific committee meetings, and monitors the safety of all medicines marketed in the EU. ‘The digital and physical connectivity of the Amsterdam Area is one of the best in the world, and commuting times are far better than the average most of our staff are used to,’ claims Rasi. ‘The business and academic communities are robust and easily accessible. This is very important for us as a source of constant inspiration, innovation and feedback. Plus,  Brussels – the EU capital – is close by and travel times on the mainland are shorter.’

Numerous benefits for Amsterdam and the EMA 

In turn, EMA brings a lot to the Amsterdam Area too, with numerous spin-off effects. Last year alone it attracted 36,000 regular international visitors to London. This of course had a direct positive impact on the income and revenues of hotels, restaurants, the entertainment industry, and all modes of transport. The same effect is expected for Amsterdam. The indirect benefits are even bigger.

Watch: The Dutch bid video for the EMA's move


The presence of a regulatory agency attracts all sorts of new activities, Rasi knows from experience. ‘Many companies like to have offices close to us. We have seen this happen in London, and it will happen again in Amsterdam too. An organisation such as ours is a nucleus for new activities in related health areas, and our presence is an extra reason for companies and institutions to stay and invest more.’ It also works as a magnet for service providers and legal counsel. For instance, after EMA’s arrival was announced, legal firm Bird & Bird (specialising in patent law) decided to expand in Amsterdam. It’s expected that many will follow.

In short: What at first seemed a politically motivated relocation will most likely be a win-win situation for both EMA and the Amsterdam Area. ‘If we succeed in managing this complex process well together, it will give a boost to all parties involved,’ Rasi concludes. ‘Still, in the immediate future we have to cope with some uncertainties. But in the medium-term and thereafter, all requirements to guarantee EMA’s continuity and future development are in place.’