My Atom or Euratom?

On March 29th 2017, by the simple act of handing over a letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, the UK Government set the country down a virgin path trodden by none before, enveloped in thick fog, with no map and only a vague idea of what the destination might be. One of the many unappreciated consequences of doing so, is that the UK has also signalled its intention to quit Euratom, which legal experts agree is a mandatory outcome of electing to leave the political union of the EU.

So what is Euratom, and why does this matter?

Established in 1957, the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC, or Euratom) has the following main areas of focus:

  • Supporting the safety of nuclear systems
  • Develop long term solutions for management of radioactive waste
  • Develop sustainable nuclear expertise within the EU
  • Support radiation protection and develop medical applications of radiation
  • Secure a safe supply of radioactive isotopes for medical applications
  • Demonstrate feasibility of fusion as a power source (e.g. ITER research)

 

With currently around 21% of total energy production in the UK coming from nuclear power, it is essential that we have effective safeguards and oversight to ensure a steady uninterrupted supply to homes and business across the country. The nuclear industry have advised that establishing a separate regulatory agency to replace Euratom within the UK would take substantially more than 2 years. We are due to leave this agency by March 29th 2019. The consequences of not having a tried and tested agency up and running by this date could mean:

  • Nuclear reactors going offline until safety checks can be carried out
  • Loss of nuclear expertise to Europe, and a skills shortage in the UK
  • Interruption to the supply of medical radioisotopes

 

Another casualty of the decision to quit Euratom would be the cooperation and collaboration with our European partners. Nuclear projects are not small and simple by any means – the Hinkley Point C station in Somerset is estimated to cost around £20bn and is only possible through investment from France and China. The UK benefits from the learnings of nuclear specialists across the continent, and all this leads to improved reactor design, improved safety protocols and lower costs.

One of the many things swept under the carpet by the Leave campaign, when they grandly painted the £350 million per week pledge for the NHS on the side of the bus, was it made no recognition of the fact that the UK doesn’t contribute this money to the EU out of the goodness of its heart

In addition, there are not many people out there that believe Nuclear Fission is the future of energy provision – only that it is the best of what we have at the moment. With huge investments into the Fusion ITER reactor, the UK would lose out of the participation of this project too, if it were to go it alone. When it comes to research, it is often the case, that two heads are better than one.

One of the many things swept under the carpet by the Leave campaign, when they grandly painted the £350 million per week pledge for the NHS on the side of the bus, was it made no recognition of the fact that the UK doesn’t contribute this money to the EU out of the goodness of its heart. The EU has a veritable army of civil servants, policy makers, analysts and regulators, all of which serve a purpose. The UK has essentially, through its EU membership, outsourced areas of UK policy and regulation to the EU – and by leaving, all of this will need to be set up anew back home. This means increasing the size of the civil service considerably – for one also loses the benefit of the economies of scale – and this will come at a cost to the state, borne by the tax payer. So the £350 million is quickly consumed (not only through the loss of growth projected) by the additional administrative responsibilities that the UK Government must assume.

Euratom is no different – if the UK leaves and sets up its own agency, it will have to pay for the infrastructure and human resources to go with it.

Another option might be to adopt the Swiss model – be an affiliate member of Euratom, without being a member of the EU. There are however a couple of problems with this:

  • The UK would still need to quit Euratom and then apply for affiliate membership
  • The UK would still need to submit to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ)

 

Given how far apart the UK and EU negotiating position are on key points like settling accounts, and rights of EU citizens, the EU has signalled that it will not allow talks on other areas to proceed until agreement on these fundamental issues are resolved. The UK has no option but to comply, as the EU holds all the cards – even if only by virtue of the fact that there is a hard deadline in play. This means that the UK would have no assurance on Euratom membership until it is too late to invoke any alternative plan – and is essentially at the mercy of EU negotiations on any other point (e.g. Gibraltar).

the UK would also be signalling that a red line isn’t really as red as it once seemed and, in fact, calls in to question the very aim that we hope to realise by leaving the EU in the first place

Secondly, Theresa May has interpreted the EU referendum result (somehow) as a message the the UK should “take back control” in all areas, and has therefore set a red line that the UK must no longer be subject to the ECJ in any area. This therefore precludes Swiss style affiliation with the treaty.

The only other option, therefore, to the UK is to withdraw its intention to quit Euratom – but in so doing the UK would also be signalling that a red line isn’t really as red as it once seemed and, in fact, calls in to question the very aim that we hope to realise by leaving the EU in the first place. Not only that, but many legal experts believe that the only way to withdraw our intention to quit Euratom is to withdraw our Article 50 notification itself. One by one, as we explore the ramifications of the decision to leave, more and more people are starting to see sense, and this is why I believe, to quote Vince Cable “Brexit may never happen”.

I hope that he’s right.


EDIT 14/07/17: Following the publication of this article, David Davis announced that the UK Government is pursuing an “associate” membership of Euratom, but that UK would not submit to ECJ jurisdiction. Instead, he feels that a separate arbitration agreement could be reached. The risks involved here are, that once existing contracts lapse, new contracts will need to be setup under the new membership arrangement – any delays could cause supply interruptions. Additionally, the risk I pointed out with the negotiation approach still apply. Davis may find that while he wants an arbitration agreement outside the ECJ, that if the EU resist late in negotiations, then he will have no time for a contingency solution and be forced to back down on this point.


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