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Analysis

Leaving Euratom could wreak nuclear havoc

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 12.07.2017

Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s former campaign director, played a vital role in spinning voters to a Brexit victory in the referendum. Yet today he seems an angry and unhappy man. He has belatedly realised that Britain’s leaving the EU could wreak havoc in the nuclear industry. Even Cummings knows this is not good news.

Euratom is the organisation, based on a 1957 treaty, that governs both nuclear safety and fuel supply in Europe, co-ordinates research into nuclear fusion, and even regulates the supply of medical isotopes for cancer treatment. Once outside the EU, Britain will have to guarantee its own safety standards to the satisfaction of suppliers and energy consumers, re-negotiate contracts to ensure provision of fuel, and re-negotiate its existing nuclear cooperation agreements. This will require a huge new bureaucracy and drive up costs. The Nuclear Industry Association says leaving Euratom with no solution in place could cause “major disruption” to the nuclear fuel cycle. The chair of the UK Atomic Energy Agency told Buzzfeed’s Tom Chivers that the “alarming” mess involved could leave him “writing by candlelight on a typewriter” by 2025.

Cummings is not happy about this. Taking to Twitter to express his dissatisfaction, he wrote: “Govt MORONS say they’re withdrawing from EURATOM. Near-retarded on every dimension”. “Anybody sentient” should “tell May/[David Davis] TODAY this is UNACCEPTABLE BULLSHIT”. Perhaps he felt the need to be so vitriolic because he knows he is one of the “morons” who brought it about.

Professor of EU law Steve Peers has argued that leaving Euratom is an inevitable consequence of Brexit. Euratom and the EU are distinct entities, but Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union applies to both and in Peers’ view, the “best interpretation of the current law” is that a member state “must” leave Euratom if it leaves the EU.

Even if this were not true, the time for Cummings to kick up a fuss was before March 29. Britain’s Article 50 letter delivered that day contained a separate notification of withdrawal from Euratom. Professor Kenneth Armstrong says that any attempt to remain in Euratom will require us to amend – or revoke – our earlier notification.

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At least nine Tory MPs, including three former ministers, say they could vote to block UK withdrawal from Euratom. For Labour, Keir Starmer has also singled out quitting the nuclear agency as one of the weakest points in the UK Brexit strategy. Indeed, Euratom could be a Trojan horse, testing the possibility of actually amending the Article 50 notification. Parliament would reassert its sovereignty over the Brexit process.

The case would also challenge Theresa May’s determination to reject any jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “Associate membership” of Euratom might still be open to Britain, but only if the UK accepted the ECJ ruling on disputes. By breaking down resistance on this point, proponents of a soft Brexit could open the way for Parliament to accept some role for the ECJ in other areas such as market access or data protection.

Britain is pulling out of a highly technical treaty that the public knows very little about, and did not know it was leaving. The government has rushed into triggering our exit to satisfy the most fanatical hardliners, with potentially dire consequences. As the treaty is not merely useful, but critical to the efficient functioning of the nuclear industry, there is now going to be a costly scramble to replicate as closely as possible our existing arrangements. The Euratom kerfuffle is a perfect microcosm of Brexit.

Edited by Quentin Peel