AstraZeneca: UK is better off in Europe

Pascal Soriot Astra Zeneca

UK-headquartered pharma company AstraZeneca has weighed into the debate about the country's place in the European Union, saying it supports staying in the trading bloc.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is currently seeking concessions from the European Union on immigration and 'ever closer' economic and political ties with the EU, ahead of an 'in or out' referendum expected as early as June or July.

Opinion polls show the general public currently more or less evenly split on whether or not 'Brexit' should occur. Mr Cameron says he will campaign to stay in the EU, but critics have been unimpressed with the modest measures he unveiled earlier this week following initial negotiations with EU officials.

Meanwhile, many Conservative members of Parliament and media outlets such as the Daily Mail are fervently in favour of Brexit. The possibility of an 'out' vote worries global finance and business leaders, with many international pharma leaders already voicing their support for the UK remaining.

Today AstraZeneca's chief executive Pascal Soriot spoke out on behalf of the company, saying it supported continuing EU membership.

[caption id="attachment_14218" align="alignnone" width="320"]Soriot Pascal Soriot[/caption]

"Our view is that the UK would be better off in the EU than outside. [That's] from the simple viewpoint that this is the general direction of history, and for countries to work together in collaborative way."

He said governments naturally needed to ensure that regulations and business rules were friendly to entrepreneurs and not overly bureaucratic.

In particular, he pointed to the success of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the London-based drugs regulator which grants marketing authorisation for the whole of the EU and affiliated countries.

"We believe it is better to have one regulatory authority, for instance – it makes sharing data across countries smoother."

If the UK were to leave Europe, it is still unclear whether or not it would continue to follow the EMA lead regarding drug approvals. Non-EU countries such as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway (members of the European Economic Area or EEA) are follow EMA rulings.

AstraZeneca's endorsement of EU membership is good news for the Prime Minister and the 'in' campaign, which is strongly backed by most multinational businesses.

It follows a similar message from the UK's other big pharma company, GlaxoSmithKline.

"It's better to be in and improving it [Europe] than to be on the outside and trying to plot a new course," GSK's chief executive Sir Andrew Witty said yesterday.

Like Soriot, he also underlined the regulatory certainty and predictability the European Union provides. Sir Andrew has been a keen supporter of further EU integration in health decision-making, such as moves towards a single decision on pricing and reimbursement. This is currently decided at the individual country level in the EU, fragmenting what is otherwise one of pharma's biggest markets.

The pro-EU messages will be welcomed by Britain Stronger in Europe, the group campaigning to stay in. Led by former Marks & Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose, it also recently won financial backing from US investment banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, as well as homegrown business leaders, BAE Systems chairman Sir Roger Carr, EasyJet boss Carolyn McCall and WPP's chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell.

The terms of the referendum say it must be held before the end of 2017, with only British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens eligible to vote. This means many people working in the UK-based pharma industry will not have a say, as companies draw talent from around the globe.

This applies to all the AstraZeneca leadership team – Pascal Soriot and finance head are both French nationals, R&D chief Sean Bohen is American, and marketing head Luke Miels is Australian.

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Andrew McConaghie

4 February, 2016