Barcelona pitches ready-to-go home for EMA in iconic building, adds to calls for quick decision to minimize risk

Torre Agbar, the skyscraper Barcelona hopes will become the home of EMA after Brexit.

The Spanish government has ratcheted up the pressure on the European Council to make a quick decision on the new home of the region’s drug regulator. Officials warned that delays will increase the risks of the treacherous transition of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) away from London—and pitched Barcelona and its iconic Torre Agbar skyscraper as a ready-to-go answer to the problem.

Barcelona first signaled its interest in hosting EMA one month after the British Brexit vote marked the start of the competition to rehome the regulator and its 900 employees. That initial interest has now developed into a more fully fleshed-out plan. Local officials have teamed up with the national government to agree on a deal to offer EMA Torre Agbar, a 38-story tower that is one of the most recognizable buildings on the skyline of the Catalan capital.

With the building in place and Barcelona already possessing some of the other attributes sought by EMA—such as transport links to the rest of Europe and an attractive lifestyle for its staff—the Spanish government is pressing the European Council to decide quickly.

In a speech attended by European Union Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, Spanish Health Minister Dolors Montserrat trotted out familiar arguments for a quick decision. Montserrat is concerned that prolonged uncertainty could disrupt EMA’s activities, putting patient welfare at risk and damaging the competitiveness of the European biopharma industry.

The bid put together by Barcelona is designed to minimize the risk of disruption. Like Copenhagen, Barcelona has put together a list of five points to make its case for hosting EMA. Many of these strengths such as the city’s lifestyle, transport links and availability of accommodation are shared by the other candidates to host EMA. But Barcelona also has some standout claims intended to ease EMA’s relocation.

Many other cities have yet to nail down exactly where they would house EMA. Copenhagen, for example, said it would “provide high quality office accommodation … at a central, attractive location” when it unveiled its bid. Barcelona has gone one better by securing and naming the building in which it hopes to house EMA.

Spain also made the vague but potentially significant promise to guarantee “a smooth transition to the vital work undertaken by the EMA.” Exactly what this could entail is unclear. But given there is uncertainty over who will fund the EMA relocation—the EU wants Britain to foot the bill—there is scope for the guarantee to make a difference.

Other cities can point to their arguably superior regulatory and research environments, plus less dysfunctional governments, to make their case against Barcelona.

If EMA staffers move to Barcelona, their new home is likely to remind them of the city they have left behind. The conical skyscraper is superficially similar to London’s 30 St Mary Axe, a building better known by its colloquial name: The Gherkin. Torre Agbar opened the year after the London skyscraper and has a similar visual profile, although both were designed by different architects and their features diverge on closer inspection.

Back in EMA’s current home city, the ABPI called for the U.K. to make a phased transition from EMA to whatever regulatory situation awaits its after Brexit. The position is underpinned by concerns about the impact of a sudden switch on the drug industry in the U.K.