Free rent, iconic sites offered in race for London’s EU agencies

The Agbar tower is illuminated with "EMA BCN" presenting their candidature to move the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to Barcelona after Brexit, in Barcelona, Spain, July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea

LONDON: European cities from Amsterdam to Zagreb have lined up sweetheart deals including free rents, landmark buildings and tailor-made relocation services in a race to house two prestigious EU agencies that will leave London after Brexit. The European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority are both prize spoils from Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in 2019, promising to boost key industries and the local economies of their new hosts.

The competition is fierce, with 19 cities trying to lure the EMA and eight shooting for the EBA. The EMA is the bigger prize, with 890 staff against under 170 at the EBA.

As well as bringing hundreds of skilled jobs, the EMA also attracts 36,000 experts each year to its meetings, making it a boon for local hotels.

More fundamentally, Europe’s one-stop-shop for approving and monitoring the safety of drugs could be a magnet for future pharmaceutical and biotechnology investment.

“Having the EMA will fertilize the life sciences community, which will be fruitful for any city, and it will attract new companies that want to locate in Europe,” said Lars Rebien Sorensen, the former boss of Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, who is special envoy for Copenhagen’s bid.

“It’s no surprise that countries are trying to sweeten their deals in one way or another,” he told Reuters.

While Frankfurt is viewed by many as the front-runner for the banking agency, the EMA race is more open, with Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Dublin, Barcelona, Milan, Vienna and Lille among those lobbying hard.

Some of the contenders plan brand new offices tailored to the EMA’s needs, though with only 16 months between the relocation decision being taken in November and Britain’s scheduled departure in March 2019 it could be touch and go whether they can complete on time.

Others have pitched existing high-profile sites. Barcelona has earmarked space in its iconic gherkin-shaped Glories or Agbar tower, which was illuminated in July with “EMA BCN” in giant lights to press home the candidature. The city has adopted BCN – the code for its airport – for its marketing.

Milan is offering the Pirelli Tower, built in 1958 and a symbol of Italy’s postwar economic recovery, while Athens has selected an old tobacco warehouse – perhaps not the most obvious choice for an EU institution dedicated to public health. Copenhagen has chosen a block just 10 minutes from the airport and is promising to pay the rent for 20 years.

It is not alone with its subsidized rent offer. Vienna, which has put in bids for both the EMA and EBA, is offering 25 years rent-free, while Warsaw would pay 50 percent for 10 years.

The European Commission will now assess the various offers by Sept. 30, based on agreed criteria such as access to infrastructure and business continuity, before ministers from 27 EU states vote on relocation in November.

The ballot will be secret – but that does not rule out political horse-trading, with one report already speculating that France may agree to Frankfurt getting the EBA if the EMA is sited in Lille.

The Swedes and Danes were first to stake a claim back in February 2016, four months before Britons had even voted to leave the EU.

Staff at the EMA and EBA, both currently located in London’s Canary Wharf financial district, will have no say on where their jobs end up, leading to inevitable anxiety.

Executives in charge of the bodies also fear disruption. The EMA has already lost several senior staff and cut some of its less critical work as it prepares for the move.

For the British government, which earlier this year was still hoping the two agencies could stay in London after Brexit, their move is a double blow, since the EU also wants Britain to pay the cost of relocating them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2017, on page 6.




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