There will be fewer disco balls, less dry ice and almost certainly no bearded divas, but the race to host the EU agencies leaving London post Brexit has one important thing in common with the Eurovision Song Contest — the voting system is so complex almost anything could happen.
Ministers from the 27 countries remaining in the EU after Brexit will gather at the General Affairs Council in Brussels Monday to decide which two cities will play host to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and European Banking Authority (EBA) once they leave London post Brexit.
The political horse-trading has already started, with backroom deals and promises of high-level favors on offer from the 19 cities bidding for the EMA and the eight in the running for the EBA. But even the most strategic of diplomatic players are likely to find their efforts thwarted by the complexity of the three-round secret voting process. In the first round, each country has a first, second and third choice ballot to cast, but voting can then move to run-off votes between the three and then the two highest placed bids.
Though the multi-round voting for the agencies is more complex, Dr. Laura Spierdijk, a professor in econometrics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who co-authored a study on Eurovision voting sees parallels with the song contest. “Research on the Eurovision song contest has shown this kind of voting system tends towards regional biases and other kinds of biases which are unrelated to the songs’ quality. Here, other factors will play a role that are not really related to what the best location is for an agency,” she said.
As in Eurovision, Baio suggests that voting by regional blocs is likely to emerge.
Dr. Gianluca Baio, an expert in Bayesian statistical modeling at University College London who has also worked on Eurovision voting, says that some countries’ bids could be more about garnering favors than a serious attempt at hosting the agency. “It may be that some bids would be put out for the first round of votes to spice things up, and get more leverage … [for example] on behalf of the Baltic countries, you put out a bid that is unlikely to get votes, but it gives them some power,” he said.
That could be an even more potent strategy in the agency fight because there are two prizes on offer which must go to different countries. France, for example, is bidding for the EMA in Lille and the EBA in Paris but it will not be able to win both.
As in Eurovision, Baio suggests that voting by regional blocs is likely to emerge. Already, Hungary has said it will support Slovakia for the EMA, and the Greek European affairs minister, Georgios Katrougalos, has said its “basic strategy is a Mediterranean countries alliance for the first and second round of voting.”
Another possibility is a strong contender might vote strategically for a weaker bid it thinks it can beat in the final round. But that could backfire if the supposedly weaker bid attracts a strong bloc of regional support. “There will be strategic voting. Serious contenders will have an incentive to push weak contenders in the early rounds, as that simplifies their life if they end up against a weak candidate in the last round,” said Laurent Bouton, associate professor of economics at Georgetown University.
“Countries who did not submit a candidacy may have incentives to push strong candidates, especially in the next to last round, in order for the competition in the last round to be fierce. That should allow them to extract more political favors in exchange for their votes,” he added.
All this could result in a highly unpredictable result, with the agencies possibly ending up in a country where most staff don’t want to move. “It may lead to some chaotic results that have little connection to the preferences of the actual voters,” said Benny Moldovanu, a professor of microeconomics at the University of Bonn.
One thing is for sure though — with the two lucrative agencies leaving its shores, on Monday the U.K. will be receiving null points.