Sunday

21st Jul 2019

Magazine

London prepares to say goodbye to EU agencies

  • Within Canary Wharf, the EMA and EBA form a part of the ecosystem of government bodies, corporate offices, banks and bars. (Photo: Davide D'Amico)

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has a nondescript presence on Canary Wharf, London's international finance hub. The mid-size tower it shares with accounting firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young) sits at one extreme of the cluster in the Docklands east of the city centre. The logo near the top of the building, a sort of sphere within a bowl, can be spotted from a distance, but at street-level only the flags of the member states in the lobby mark it out.

The other London-based EU agency, the European Banking Authority (EBA), is harder to find without knowing where to look. The authority's 150 or so employees work on the 46th floor of the tower at One Canada Square, Canary Wharf's most recognisable structure with a silver obelisk at the very centre.

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  • A barber, Alex Can, thinks that EMA staff look like robots. "Usually you would smile at people," said the barber, but "nobody from there has introduced themselves to me." (Photo: Ryan Tang)

A former chair of the EU Agencies Network and head of the EU Intellectual Property Office, Antonio Campinos, has called the EU agencies "the familiar face of the EU for many Europeans", but to many Londoners, the presence of the two EU agencies is entirely unknown.

A Brazilian employee at an Italian restaurant in the shadow of the EMA's building, for example, was unaware of what its occupants do until this was pointed out to him during a conversation with EUobserver. Many of the people approached for this article, including him, did not want to give their name because they were not allowed by their employers to speak to the press on the record.

The imminent departure of the EU agencies - due to Brexit - is not a subject of concern amongst the restaurant's staff. "No one has any problems. No one comments badly about it," he said.

To the bid teams competing for the EMA and the EBA after they are forced to leave London, the benefits of hosting an EU agency are, however, palpable and significant.

Hotel bookings

Within Canary Wharf, the EMA and EBA form a part of the ecosystem of government bodies, corporate offices, banks and bars.

Much has worriedly been written about the loss of business due to the departure of the EMA. On top of its 800 or so employees, the agency draws in around 36,000 visitors a year for meetings and conferences. Securing the relocation of an agency could be a boon for any future host city.

"[Their departure] will be felt," said the manager of a hotel in Canary Wharf, who did not want to share her name. "Depending on who moves into the building, we don't know if they will generate the same number of travellers."

Without specifying the exact amount, she said the hotel received "a significant number of bookings directly from the EMA", adding that a number of other EMA visitors book privately and are therefore harder to track.

Regular customers

Liga, the manager of a bar-restaurant opposite the EMA, likewise highlighted the importance of this traffic for the business. The restaurant survives on the business created by people working in the buildings around it.

She pointed at two people sitting by a window in the restaurant, deep in conversation. "These two guys, they are from Switzerland," she said. "They work in the drug industry so they come here all the time. They are coming once a month and staying for like a week, and they are becoming our regular customers because it's just across the road and we are providing them with a good lunch."

Liga is not, however, overly concerned about the departure of the EMA. "They are important, obviously every guest is important, but it's not like our restaurant is open just because of them," she said. "I think, at the moment, [those that] bring us the most money [are] Barclays, EY and State Street," she said, referring to the bank, the accounting firm, and the financial services company located next to the EMA. She explained guests revealed their employer through their email addresses when booking.

The hotel manager said she was optimistic, despite Brexit and the departure of the EMA and EBA. "The concern is that the departure of the EMA will come very suddenly. If your potential clients go, you have to think about where you are getting new ones from. But people will still come to Canary Wharf." She noted that a new underground line would improve connections to the area, making Canary Wharf, where rents are relatively low compared to central London, even more attractive to companies. "I'm still positive," she added.

Robots don't need haircuts

Others say they won't feel their departure at all. Alex Can manages a barber shop in one of the retail spaces closest to the EMA. "I can tell you now that not even one percent of my customers come from there, most of them are from the banks and the corporates," he said. "People from Barclays and the other banks have introduced themselves and told us what they do. Nobody from there has introduced themselves to me."

"When I walk out of here and go to the station, I walk in front of the EMA. Usually you would smile at people - they're like robots. Like 800 ghosts in that place."

While even 800 or more 'ghosts' cannot disappear unnoticed from Canary Wharf, their role should not be exaggerated. Concerns about Brexit are real, and the 'grumblings' of the corporates are heard but, ultimately, the EMA and the EBA are two among many in the dense centre of London's professional world.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2017 Regions & Cities Magazine.

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