brexit view

Going nuclear

With less press coverage at the time, the UK government letter triggering Article 50 also announced withdrawal from Euratom. That is the European Atomic Energy Community through which Britain is guaranteed a long-term supply of fuel for power stations and can import medical isotopes it doesn’t produce itself, for example cancer treatment. Since these decay rapidly they must be shipped within a day or even hours of need.

The UK government believes Euratom membership is legally tied to EU membership and simultaneous withdrawal is unavoidable; but the two are governed by separate treaties, so was this theory tested? After all, the UK joined Euratom in 1957, before it joined the old EEC. This feeds suspicion that the government hasn’t thought things through and that its red lines are overruling practicalities.

Theresa May has stated her fundamental opposition to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which can make rulings on the Euratom treaties, and free movement, which separately covers nuclear specialists. The former chief of staff to the UK Brexit secretary of state said that these conditions have hamstrung the government. Already it is struggling to fill regulatory gaps that its objectives will create. On Euratom it admits it hasn’t assessed the impact of leaving and of the eight Brexit bills creating new UK powers, the relevant one (nuclear safety) does not cover some key Euratom provisions.

Some Tory MPs want the government to reverse the Euratom decision (although they supported it when they voted for the Article 50 bill). Even if this doesn’t conflict with EU withdrawal, to cede to these MPs might mean retracting the Article 50 letter (and amending the Act of Parliament) which this government won’t do. However, it can’t afford rebellions either because it needs to pass a lot of legislation before spring 2019 with a slim majority. Therefore, it’s vulnerable to pressure to compromise.

That process seems to have started with ministers talking about continuing some EU rules, payments, and migration during a transition period. There could be more concessions in relation to some of the 40 EU agencies that benefit both UK industries and citizens. It’s impossible either to replace all of these quickly, which includes getting international recognition for new alternative standards on, for example, sale of prescription medicines, or to keep them while severing all ECJ ties.

The debate over this will reveal more of the Brexit minefield (besides the dangers lurking in the Repeal Bill that was published last week) and raise this question: how can staying in the single market be the nuclear option if you’re expensively copying its mechanisms? Increasingly, it’s likely that more buttons will be pushed that are beyond the government’s control and, ultimately, the hand that pulled the trigger can be forced by events, particularly ones that impact on voters’ everyday lives.