Tuesday

19th Mar 2019

EUobserved

Scramble for UK agencies paves way for Trumpian claims

  • Spain wants to host the European Medicines Agency in the Torre Glories (l) in Barcelona, henceforth known as "the best building" (Photo: Stéphane Neckebrock)

Was it Donald Trump's visit that inspired Spain's health minister to be such a braggart this week?

Like Trump, Dolors Montserrat came to Brussels this week. Her aim was to convince EU officials that Barcelona was "the best candidate" to host the London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA), which will need to be relocated after Brexit.

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  • Spanish health minister Montserrat (r), visiting the European Commission (Photo: European Commission)

Montserrat almost sounded like a Trump parody.

She repeatedly said Barcelona was “the best city”, had “the best building”, and “the best infrastructure”.

“We are the best option, the best city, the best country,” Montserrat said, emphasising that the EMA staff could move into the Torre Glories tower in Barcelona "tomorrow".

She spoke in Spanish, but added "We are ready" several times in English.

According to a press release sent on behalf of Montserrat by a Brussels-based consulting firm, she came on Wednesday (24 May) to meet European commissioner for health Vytenis Andriukaitis and “other senior EU officials”.

She had brought a slick glossy brochure, which she handed out to journalists, titled: "Move to Spain. Barcelona is waiting for you", and a subtitle that already called Barcelona "seat of the European Medicines Agency".

Expect more of these boastful displays of city marketing in the coming months, as EU member states have until 31 July to submit their bids to host the EMA and the European Banking Authority (EBA), another London-based agency that needs to find a new home after the UK's divorce from the bloc – expected by March 2019 at the latest.

By some estimates, more than twenty member states are interested in hosting one or both of the agencies.

'Objective criteria'

On Monday, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission distributed a document among member states, which laid out how the new host cities will be selected.

The document was not published – even though the EU institutions said they would display “unprecedented” transparency in relation to Brexit – but was cited by the Financial Times and Bloomberg.

The paper reportedly said that the new locations would be determined by “objective criteria”.

Montserrat, the first to visit Brussels as part of an agency bid since the document's distribution, said that Barcelona fulfilled all of those criteria.

She dismissed commitments made by EU government leaders – including Spain's – in 2003 and 2008, that when choosing where to establish new agencies, locations in EU member states that joined since 2004 should be prioritised.

Instead, Montserrat said that since the EMA and the EBA are not new agencies, these past promises do not apply.

Alternative facts

In the tradition of Trump, some alternative facts were also used to support Barcelona's bid.

Spain hosts four EU agencies, and one organisation that is categorised as a Joint Undertaking. The latter manages the EU's contribution to research to create fusion energy.

Yet Montserrat told EUobserver that Spain had “three, just three” agencies.

“We just have the fishing one in Vigo, it's a smaller one. The second is the safe labour agency in Bilbao. And then we have the trademark agency in Alicante,” she said.

And what about the Joint Undertaking Fusion for Energy, based in Barcelona, and the EU Satellite Centre (SatCen) in Torrejon de Ardoz, just outside Madrid?

“They are provisional and they are not real European agencies,” Montserrat said.

A peculiar response, given that SatCen identifies itself on its own website as an EU agency.

Moreover, the legal documents governing SatCen say nothing about its provisionality.

The Joint Undertaking Fusion for Energy was established in 2007 for a period of 35 years – so until 2042. Strictly speaking it's provisional, yes, but perhaps not how most people understand it.

Five EU nations host no agency

Even if accepting Montserrat's alternative universe – where Spain only has three EU agencies – that still means that aside from France, which hosts four, no other EU country is blessed with more.

The EU's largest nation, Germany, has two agencies, whereas Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia currently do not host any EU bodies.

But Montserrat said that a lack of an agency in a member state cannot be a valid argument for placing one there. She instead went on to use several red herrings.

“We have to think of the health of the European patients,” she said.

Montserrat implied that EU citizens' health would be at risk if the new EMA host city does not have schools that can host the children of the EMA staff, or that have regular flights to other European cities.

She even stressed that Spaniards “care about health”, as if EU citizens in other candidate countries do not.

On Wednesday, Montserrat's presentation to mostly Spanish journalists gave a preview of what we can expect: nations attempting to mask the simple reason for wanting to host the agencies – the financial benefit and prestige.

They will scramble for any argument, no matter how illogical, to support their case.

Relocation of EU agencies could save money

The EU agencies that will leave London after Brexit are likely have a financial windfall of several million euros a year, because of the way EU salaries are calculated.

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