Can post-Brexit drugs deal lead to cocktail of compromises?

by Luke Lythgoe | 04.07.2017

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt and business secretary Greg Clark want continued cooperation with the EU on medicines. The pharmaceutical sector is one where the case for post-Brexit collaboration seems compelling. Intriguingly, the nature of their proposals conjures up the possibility of compromise in other, more controversial areas.

In a letter to the Financial Times, the two cabinet ministers wrote that patients should “continue to be able to access the best and most innovative medicines and be assured that their safety is protected through the strongest regulatory framework and sharing of data”.

This collaboration on drugs regulation was, they argued, very much in line with the “deep, broad and dynamic co-operation” Theresa May has always sought. The letter was reportedly signed off by Number 10, the Treasury and David Davis’s Brexit department, but it is also being seen as another example of ministers being given freer rein after the prime minister’s humbling at the general election. It is also unusual that the government has laid out its starting position on medicines before Brexit negotiations on the topic have even started.

With any regulatory issue, the red line will always be the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Hunt and Clark appear to propose a solution: a close relationship between the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which falls under the jurisdiction of the ECJ. They don’t spell out how this might work, but the MHRA could feasibly participate in the initial scientific assessment of a new drug, after which separate but identical proposals could be sent to Brussels and London for authorisation.

This raises hopes for other industries facing a regulatory cliff-edge after Brexit, such as the chemical and nuclear industries. May’s insistence on leaving Europe’s atomic energy community, Euratom, has been criticised as particularly short-sighted. In her weakened position, it’s unclear whether the prime minister can stick to this. A former adviser to David Davis told the FT: “I think if she doesn’t shift on Euratom, I think parliament will shift it for her.”

But Hunt’s and Clark’s stance on pharmaceuticals goes beyond regulatory frameworks. They also want to ensure companies can “get their products into the UK market as quickly and simply as possible” and that the UK continues to be a “leader in medical innovation”. The subtext here is that Britain must be able to trade easily with the EU’s single market and attract skilled foreign workers. Industry will hold ministers’ feet to the fire on these points, with AstraZeneca chief executive Pascal Soriot demanding access to “scientific talent” and “efficient supply chains”.

Now that air is being let into the Brexit debate, suggestions are flying around on both these points. On trade, rebel Labour MPs and business leaders are demanding continued membership of the single market, while policy officials in Whitehall are mulling over a new customs union with the EU which would still allow the UK to strike international trade deals.

On migration, Nick Clegg has become the latest person to point out that free movement needn’t be as chaotic as Brexiters claim; that many EU countries stringently exercise their right to remove migrants who aren’t working or to limit their benefits; and that the UK was just rather lax in enforcing EU migration laws to their full extent. Then there’s the precedent of Liechtenstein’s migration controls. The tiny state is a member of the single market by dint of being in EFTA, but it nevertheless succeeded in negotiating migration limits with the EU.

Brexiters may complain about red lines, EU leaders about cherry-picking. But both sides should explore these kinds of innovative, practical solutions when tackling the monumental task of Brexit. Only pragmatism will turn May’s “deep and special partnership” from a soundbite into reality.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley