Milan hopes to gain from Barcelona's pain in race for EU drugs agency

MILAN (Reuters) - Milan is hoping that Spain’s Catalonia crisis will give the Italian city a boost in getting to host the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Union agency quitting London because of Brexit.

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Roberto Maroni, government chief of Lombardia, whose capital is Milan, reckons the independence crisis has effectively eliminated Barcelona as EMA favorite and turned the race into a run-off between Milan and Vienna.

“There’s no doubt (the crisis) very much lowers Barcelona’s chances to the advantage of Milan,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

The EMA has been based in London since 1995, but must find a new home after Britain voted to exit the European Union. A one-stop-shop for approving and monitoring safety of drugs across Europe, the agency must be headquartered in an EU country.

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and Spain’s second-largest city, was seen as a frontrunner until the Catalan government’s push for independence recently precipitated the country’s biggest political crisis in four decades.

With Brussels due to decide on the EMA’s new home on Nov. 20, it was difficult to imagine that the crisis could be resolved in time for Barcelona to recover ground, Maroni said.

A spokesman for the Barcelona bid team did not have any immediate comment. But a Catalan official, speaking before Maroni’s remarks, said Barcelona remained a strong contender.

“It affects the political situation, but everyone thinks Barcelona is still the best option,” said a press officer at Catalonia’s permanent representation to the EU in Brussels.

A Spanish government source said there was no risk of Catalonia becoming independent and that the bid was on track.

“We don’t have any worries about this,” the source said.

The crisis erupted on Oct. 1 when Catalonia defied a Spanish ban and staged an independence referendum. In scenes that shocked Spain’s EU neighbors, national police used rubber bullets and batons in Barcelona to stop people from voting.

The Spanish government has given Catalonia’s leader until Thursday to renounce independence or it will use its constitutional power to take control of the region directly.

On the 19 cities vying for the EMA, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna, Milan and Copenhagen rate highly as options among the agency’s 890 workers, according to a staff survey.

Maroni said Milan feared Vienna more than Amsterdam because it was backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

He suggested Italy and Germany should strike a deal to give Milan the EMA and Frankfurt another of the spoils of Brexit, the smaller London-based European Banking Authority (EBA), which will also have to find a new home.

“The Italian government should say to Merkel, ‘We will support you for the EBA in exchange for your support for the EMA in Milan,” Maroni said.

Reporting by Mark Bendeich and Sara Rossi in Milan, Lily Cusack in Brussels and Emma Pinedo in Madrid; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt