When article 50 was declared, both the bill and letter sent to the EU clearly stated the UK was leaving Euratom (the EU’s nuclear agency) as well as the EU. I was slightly confused by this as it seems to contradict something I’ve long noted about the Tories, their illogical devotion towards nuclear energy. I did wonder whether this represented a moment of clarity (that nuclear power is a waste of time and money), or was it just another sign that they haven’t got a clue with what they are doing. I think we’ll have to conclude it was the latter.
Euratom is a European agency that has various responsibilities. They act as a single market for nuclear energy components, nuclear fuels (i.e uranium supplies), medical isotopes, regulation of the nuclear industry (notably its safe handling procedures) as well as research into long term nuclear projects such as the ITER fusion project.
The sticking point for the UK is that two key components of Euratom are free movement of people (so nuclear scientists can move around unobstructed) and accepting the rulings of the ECJ. These are not minor points in the small print, but central to how Euratom works. As the UK is leaving the single market and specifically going out of it way to restrict free movement and the dominion of the ECJ, this means they will have to leave Euratom on brexit.
The consequences of leaving Euratom could be rather serious. As some nuclear scientists have pointed out it could mean a go-slow (if not an all stop) to nuclear energy projects across the UK, it could lead to shortages of nuclear fuel, qualified experts and medical isotopes. I mean I’m not exactly a fan of nuclear energy, but a messy disintegration of the industry is hardly something positive.
It dawning on them that leaving Euratom might actually be a bad thing, only now are the brexiters starting to panic. Dominic Cummings, who was campaign director for vote Leave, sent out a furious tweet condemning this decision, as did several MP’s who voted for article 50, despite the fact that leaving Euratom was included in that bill. So one must conclude that Cummings had no idea what he was campaigning for (the dog who caught the bus and all that) and many of the Tory MP’s didn’t even bother to read the article 50 bill before voting on it.
Meanwhile Dave2 has suggested the UK could remain an “associate” member of Euratom. This indicates many of the brexiters are still acting under the “have our cake and eat it” delusion. While it is true that Switzerland, America and China are associate members of Euratom, their circumstances are very different.
Switzerland has only a handful of reactors, which they are planning to decommission without replacement. So any impact of free movement and the domain of the ECJ doesn’t really effect them much and it won’t effect them for much longer. The US and China are only in the club so that they can ensure their scientists can attend conferences or work on projects such as ITER. The aren’t particularly concerned about a couple of Europeans scientists coming over to their country to do the same and the ECJ element of Euratom is unlikely to ever effect them.
But the brexiters seem to think that in 2020 they can just self-invite themselves to the next Euratom board meeting and nobody will mind. Well no, they will be marched off site by security and thrown out onto the street. In order for the UK to gain associate membership all of the existing members will have to agree. And if the UK has just undertaken a messy exit and refused to pay its exit bill then I can guarantee you that someone will black ball them and they’ll be told to take a hike.
Now in theory, the UK could set up its own version of Euratom. There are agencies such as the UK Atomic Energy Authority or NNL (national nuclear laboratories) who could take over some of its responsibilities. However they lack the infrastructure, staff and international agreements to perform that role. Now if the government were to accept the reality that they’ll be chucked out of Euratom upon brexit and started the process to prepare for that now, its just about doable for them to be ready in two years time. But there’s the problem. The penny hasn’t dropped with them yet, they won’t and hence the risk of chaos.
And of course spending a few hundred million to replicate work which the EU does anyway is hardly sensible use of taxpayers money. But it is merely one of a dozen other EU agencies whose work will have to be replicated here in the UK at a cost of probably a few billion a year. And again, its not as if we can just hit a light switch, recruiting all of those staff, building up the infrastructure to support all these agencies is going to take time and time isn’t something the UK has in abundance. And what most of those agencies will be doing is googling the relevant EU laws and basically plagiarising them, much as the so-called repeal bill, won’t repeal a thing, but will simply plagiarise lots of EU legislation.
For example, take the airline industry. The UK will lose access to the European open skies agreement on brexit. Already in anticipation of this Easyjet has set up a subsidiary in Austria and is applying for an EU based operating license. Also they are already 49% owned by European shareholders (they have to be 50.1%) so its not too difficult to envisage them becoming a European airline post-brexit. Ryanair have warned of serious repercussions post-brexit. BA might be okay, as they don’t fly to many European destinations, but there will inevitably be knock on effects, given that their parent company IAG is not majority European owned (probably they and Ryanair will need to hold a share buy back and then fire sale after brexit to retain access to the EU’s skies). But its likely all in all that far from UK airlines expanding their operations, the opposite will happen, which kind raises questions as to what’s the point of expanding Heathrow.
So while I suspect many of the UK’s anti-nuclear campaigners will react with glee to this little fiasco, it contains some very worrying news as it suggests a very messy UK exit, post-brexit.