Researching Pharmaceutical Policymaking in Brussels

Vassilis Karokis-Mavrikos |

The growing complexity of EU policymaking continues to intrigue researchers from a wide variety of disciplines. Emerging challenges give rise to new scholarly puzzles at a rapid pace. As an early career academic in European Public Policy, my PhD thesis seeks to introduce a new lens for the understanding of agenda-setting and policy-formulation dynamics at the EU level. My research focuses on case studies from the field of pharmaceutical policymaking, a high topical policy area defined by multi-level governance patterns and ambiguous jurisdictional mandates. In such settings, collecting original primary data in the form of elite interviews with key policy stakeholders can contribute invaluably to illuminating latent but crucial policymaking intricacies.  

Through the UACES Scholarship, I had the opportunity to conduct two short trips to Brussels in March and June of 2023 to advance the project’s fieldwork. During my stay, I completed a total of 13 interviews with policymakers and key non-institutional stakeholders. The participants included representatives from the European Commission’s DG SANTE, the European Parliament, the European Medicines Agency, the European Public Health Alliance, Vaccines Europe, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries, the European Confederation of Pharmaceutical Entrepreneurs and the EUnetHTA Secretariat. The interviews were semi-structured, guided by an EU-orientated iteration of the Multiple Streams Framework developed by the PhD thesis. Moreover, the interviewees participated in a Q-methodology exercise, aimed at identifying the relative influence of stakeholders in the development of policy alternatives in a quantitative fashion.  

The experience proved instrumental in unpacking the dynamics of policy advocacy, coordination, consultation, conflict and issue-salience, both within the pharmaceutical policymaking area and across the EU institutional landscape as a whole. The interviewees shared unique insight on the relative impact of different policymaking channels and strategies, the competing priorities of different instruments and institutions, the challenges in striking a balance between technocratic and ideologically motivated preferences, and the lingering effect which the current status quo of “permacrisis” has left on the Union. Complementing the official policy data, the interviews significantly enhanced the analytical power of the thesis in explaining why levels of harmonization, policy directions and policy change magnitude vary significantly between market authorizations, innovation incentives, product regulations and health technology assessments.   

Beyond the interview content, visiting and experiencing the Brussels policymaking ecosystem gave me a glimpse into the daily workings of the, rather elusive, EU political system. Spending time in Commission DG Units or interest association offices offered me a first-hand understanding of how agendas are built, how interests are mediated, and which forums policy stakeholders use to interact. Despite their high-octane routines, all interviewees were accommodating and open to adding immersive elements to the experience, such as inviting me to watch group meetings or introducing me to colleagues.  

Overall, the 13 interviews in Brussels have proven invaluable to the completion of my thesis. They allowed me to confirm conclusions, piece narratives together and uncover variances between the de jure and the de facto of EU (pharmaceutical) policymaking. I am truly grateful to UACES for enabling this experience.  



About the UACES Scholarship:

The scholarships are travel bursaries designed to provide mobility to existing postgraduate students so that they can undertake research in another country.