Agbar Tower
Agbar Tower

The Eurovision of the EMA

Becoming the site for the European Medicines Agency would boost the pharmaceutical and scientific sector in Barcelona, although it depends on a vote that hides other interests

We will soon learn who will host the new HQ of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Barcelona wants the big prize, which is one of Europe’s largest agencies, with 900 public workers paid by the European Union (EU), an annual budget of 340 million euros and more than 65,000 visitors. Brexit could offer the Catalan capital the chance to boost its pharmaceutical and scientific sector. The decision will be taken next week after "a vote not unlike the Eurovision," says the representative of the Health Commission of the College of Economists and former director general of the Health Ministry, Lluís Bohigas.

The economist is clear: "It is the preference of the employees." Specifically, some 78% of the agency’s public servants would move to the Catalan capital, according to an internal survey, while some 70% would leave the agency if it goes to Bratislava. Yet, the Financial Times says that Barcelona "has gone off the rails" because of the "Catalan crisis" giving the advantage mainly to Milan and Bratislava but also Amsterdam and Copenhagen. It even reported that Italy offered the Baltic states more NATO troops in exchange for a vote. "The FT admits that the article is based on rumors," warns Bohigas, who points out that "everyone thought that the process of deciding where to put the HQ would be rational and objective but it has ended up in a game of exchanging stickers."

"The process to decide on the site for the EMA has turned into a game of exchanging stickers"

The vote will be very similar to the European music contest, "the only difference is that the vote is secret," adds the expert. In the first round, each country can distribute six votes (three, two and one per option) while the second round is only open to the three most-voted aspirants, with each country having a single vote. If no city gets an absolute majority, then there will be a third and final round for the two most popular.

Barcelona is competing against 18 cities among which are Amsterdam, Athens, Bonn, Bratislava, Brussels, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Dublin, Helsinki, Lille, Malta, Milan, Porto, Sofia, Stockholm, Vienna, Warsaw and Zagreb. The city that gets the EMA will receive significant economic benefits, which means the competition will be fierce until the end.

The EMA scientifically evaluates, supervises and ensures the safety of medicines for human and animal use in the EU. It was set up in 1995 and its main functions consist of the authorisation and follow-up of medicinal drugs in the EU. In order to sell their products, pharmaceutical companies have to apply for authorisation for each one, which is issued by the European Commission. The authorisation allows the firms to sell the medicines in question in the entire EU and the European Economic Area.

The memory of 1992

In 1992, with Spain in the EU presidency, Barcelona was put forward as a candidate to host this agency and reached the final. Catalonia today has 230 laboratories, which make up almost half of the Spanish and international pharmaceutical industry in Spain. At the same time, according to Catalan government figures, pharmaceutical production in Catalonia represents 3.5% of all in Europe -similar to that of the Netherlands (4%), Denmark (3.7%) or Sweden (3.6%)- and the Catalan pharmaceutical sector is the fifth most productive in the UE-15. It is thus strategic for the Catalan economy.

The Catalan pharmaceutical sector is the fifth most productive in the EU

The pharmaceutical industry currently employs 21,200 people in Catalonia, which represents 3.3% of industrial employment and 56.2% of employment in Spanish pharmaceutical firms. Meanwhile, Barcelona has in the past few years become a European centre for clinical trials. Given the economic and business environment, Barcelona can make a strong case to host the EMA.

Hospitals in Barcelona are leaders in carrying out clinical trials of advanced therapies: some 80% from industry, and up to 20% from initiatives by doctors and other health professionals. "These trials could benefit from the EMA’s best experts and consultants," says Barcelona’s College of Doctors.

Criteria and benefits

The criteria set by the European Commission are about the effectiveness of the new HQ on the day it moves, the transport connections for easily reaching it from different European and international cities and the continuity of the business such as aspects focused on its workers.

"Barcelona is a good place for research in medicine and that generates synergies with the EMA," says Bohigas. According to the head of economy in the Catalan health department, the arrival of the agency would benefit the local health sector by attracting experts from all over the world during technical commissions and would create scientific and real estate wealth for the country.

Apart from the economic and social repercussions, the EMA is a magnet for attracting talent and “for doctors would mean a great chance to favour dynamics of knowledge exchange,” says Barcelona’s College of Doctors, one of the signatories to the manifesto supporting Barcelona’s candidacy. According to the College, “Catalan doctors have historically stood out for their vocation to research and innovation. It was the efforts of doctors that first forged Catalonia’s early biomedical research centres that today lead the way in Europe. Thanks to their daily contact with patients, they knew what the needs and priorities were when it came to clinical research. At the same time, these health professionals and centres increasingly work together more actively with basic research centres. This has turned Catalonia into the main region in the south of Europe for biomedical research.”

A manifesto in pole position

A technical report from the EMA that was carried out at the end of September puts Barcelona in pole position among the candidates. The Catalan health minister, Antoni Comín, pointed out at the time that one of the great advantages of the Catalan capital is the Torre Glòries –popularly known as the Torre Agbar, designed by Jean Nouvel- while a "tough rival" like Amsterdam has put forward "an idea for a provisional building".

Barcelona’s candidacy is backed by a manifesto that more than 200 organisations have signed defending "the scientific, technological and industrial potential" of the city while inviting the employees to "enjoy a high quality lifestyle, one of the best public health systems in the world and a complete range of international schools." In fact, it is estimated that school places will be needed for almost 600 children and young people, who are the offspring of agency staff, as well as access to health and jobs for almost 900 families.

"It is a mistake to have put forward Spain and not Barcelona as a competitor"

Another report, from the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce stresses that the Catalan capital is internationally "better" connected than its competitors, with the offer of 18 international schools in the city’s metropolitan area, an "accessible" job market and "public and free" health services for the city’s residents.

"A mistake"

Bohigas does not hesitate in criticizing the strategy of the report presented by the Health Ministry: "The agency is looking for a city more than a country." He argues that the EU mostly spreads its institutions between countries and therefore, "it is a mistake putting forward Spain and not Barcelona as a competitor."

The only point that does not help Barcelona’s candidacy is geographic dispersal. Spain already has three European agencies: the European Union Intellectual Property Office in Alicante, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in Bilbao, and the European Fisheries Control Agency in Vigo. As for the rest of the technical requirements, Barcelona has it all: facilities, accessibility, schools for the children of agency employees, access to the job market and health services for families, and continuity of activity.

However, with a week still to go, Bohigas insists that "Barcelona can do no more" and that everything will also depend on whether the Ministry is willing to play the game of “exchanging stickers”.

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