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16th Jun 2019

Spain still wants to host EU agency in Catalan capital

  • If Barcelona is selected to host EMA, the agency would work from this tower. (Photo: Ania Mendrek)

Spain presented its bid to host the currently London-based European Medicines Agency (EMA) after Brexit on Wednesday (18 October), with an enormous elephant in the room.

In many ways, the one-hour event at Spain's EU embassy in Brussels was very similar to those of the other countries that have promoted their bids over the past weeks: lots of superlatives to describe Spain's offer as the best, and a promotional video showing the candidate city's most photogenic sides.

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  • Spanish health minister Montserrat (l) and her colleague from the Catalan government, Toni Comin, at a meeting about the bid to host EMA in Barcelona. (Photo: Ajuntament Barcelona)

But Spain's candidate city is Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, which is the stage of a deep ongoing political conflict.

On Thursday, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is due to clarify to the central government in Madrid whether his government has declared independence.

In the past three weeks since Catalan's referendum on 1 October - which was declared illegal by Spain's constitutional court - a question has become relevant that does not apply to the other EMA host candidates.

What if EMA moves to Barcelona and Catalonia secedes? All political signs say that an independent Catalonia would not automatically be a member of the European Union.

The whole point of the EMA campaign is to find a new home for the agency, because Brexit will force it to leave London.

But at Wednesday's presentation, which ended after an hour without opening the floor for questions, it took almost half an hour before any of the speakers discussed the political crisis.

It was the event's fifth speaker (without counting the moderator) who was the first to touch on the issue.

"At this point, many of you may be thinking that I haven't been reading the newspapers, and don't know what is happening in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia," said Gonzalo Rodes, the chairman of Barcelona Global, a business association.

"Of course I do, and of course I'm worried," he said. But he added that the crisis was going to be solved.

"Spain has been a democratic state for more than forty years, in which the rule of law guarantees solutions to conflicts like this. It is my sincere belief that events have reached their adjourning point."

"I am convinced that politicians will now start paying attention to the demands of the citizens, who neither want nor deserve to live in this uncertainty," he added.

But the event's political representatives carefully skirted around current affairs.

Spanish health minister Dolors Montserrat initially only referred to the threat of secession by saying she was "proud" to be born in Barcelona, and "proud to be a Catalan and a Spanish citizen".

But she ended her speech, and the event, by stressing that the bid to host EMA is supported "by all levels of public administration" - the Spanish government, the Catalan government, and the Barcelona city council.

"EMA is a project of unity," she said. "We believe it is a good way to move beyond the current debate in Catalonia. A project that brings us all together."

The event ended without an opportunity to ask questions, but one of the panellists, Mireia Belil, sat down with EUobserver afterwards.

Belil has been involved in the bid since February, as a temporary director of the programme of support for Barcelona's bid at the Catalan ministry of health.

She did not want to comment on the Catalan referendum and its aftermath.

But she noted that the different governments were working together on the EMA bid.

"Of course everybody is aware of what is going on, and everybody is aware that everybody has [their] own political agenda, and [their] own beliefs. But we work closely together. We meet every week twice, the three administrations," she said.

The event was held a day after interior and EU affairs ministers had discussed the bids at a meeting in Luxembourg, and much later than other countries' Brussels-based presentations - most of which took place in September.

According to Belil, the presentation was scheduled to be held earlier, but then it had to be postponed because of agenda problems. She said it was not related to the referendum.

She also denied that the presentation was held to reaffirm Spain's unity on the bid as a response to the recent crisis.

"We have been united in this area for the last eight, nine months," she said.

Belil said that she saw Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Milan, and Vienna as Barcelona's most important competitors.

Spain points at elections as exit to Catalan crisis

Spanish political leaders called on Catalan separatists to organise regional elections as a way to avoid emergency measures due to be taken on Thursday. That's "not on the table", a Catalan official replied.

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A crucial week is ahead in Catalonia as its leaders decide whether to declare independence - an illegal move according to the Spanish government – or yield to pressure from Madrid.

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