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What Euratom really stands for

Cruas Nuclear Power Station, France - Credit: Archant

The Euratom row lays bare the innate flaws of Brexit. But it also gives pro-Europeans their biggest chance yet to regain the initiative

Our politicians have belatedly woken up to the fact that amongst the many complex implications of Brexit are some very serious issues to do with nuclear safety, nuclear waste and nuclear medicine. These arise because the government’s Hard Brexit plan entails leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) which, in turn, arises because although Euratom is not part of the EU it falls within the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Although the ECJ has in fact made very few judgments regarding Euratom, Theresa May has made leaving all forms of its jurisdiction a non-negotiable red line, and so leaving Euratom was included in both the Article 50 letter and the parliamentary Act which authorised her to send that letter.

This may now lead to a parliamentary rebellion amongst Tory MPs against, at least, this aspect of Brexit, meaning it is possible the government will not have a majority for it. But what is happening with Euratom points up very sharply a whole series of extremely significant questions about Brexit in general.

First off, Euratom is an issue of great complexity and great importance, but it did not feature in the Referendum campaign. Can anyone say that those who voted for Brexit knew that they were voting for something that would, amongst other things, impact on the availability of cancer treatments? How many other things were ignored or barely discussed during the campaign? What, then, of the idea that Brexit is ‘the will of the people’?

Even Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave, has criticised leaving Euratom as ‘unacceptable bullshit’. But don’t Leave campaigners have to take responsibility and be held to account for the practical implications of their ‘take back control’ slogan from which exiting the agency directly flows?

Euratom also exemplifies the paucity of planning for Brexit. Lagging behind the EU by some weeks, the UK government has only very recently produced a position paper on it for the negotiations, and it is very short on detail. So did the government understand what they were doing by deciding to leave Euratom? They have admitted that they did not conduct a formal impact assessment. How many other aspects of Brexit is this true of? Where are the assessments of, for example, a ‘no deal’ Brexit? Or of the different ways of enacting Brexit? Or of the government’s preferred way as expressed in the White Paper?

Yet despite its lack of planning and expertise, the government is still resistant to accepting the advice of experts such as the Royal College of Radiologists, dismissing their concerns about leaving Euratom as ‘scaremongering’. This is all of a piece with widely reported stories that they are doing the same with any expert raising practical concerns around trade, customs, the Ireland border and so on. How can competent government proceed on an evidence-free basis, relying only on slogans and platitudes and listening only to hardcore Brexit ideologues?

Euratom is also revealing about what appears to be the central tenet of the government’s White Paper approach to Brexit, which is to create new bilateral UK-EU agencies to undertake the regulatory work formerly done by EU institutions. But what will this cost? Is it possible to create such bodies? And if it is possible then what’s the point anyway? Are we really to go through all the disruption and bureaucratic complexity of creating these new arrangements just because the existing ones gave some voters, as the White Paper puts it, the ‘feeling’ that sovereignty had been lost to the EU?

Beyond all this, what is going on in terms of political process? Did parliament understand what it voted for in passing the Article 50 Bill? The Euratom exit was clearly identified in that Bill, but now MPs are not happy with it. They are right to be unhappy, but what does it say for the care they took in the Article 50 vote? Is the point here is that the changed landscape caused by the election has finally emboldened Remainer MPs to do their job? If so, what consequences follow?

In this regard, Euratom is an important case because it is not one that even hardline Brexiters attach great significance to in itself and so it might be a relatively easy argument for anti-Brexit MPs to win. But if they can revisit one part of the Article 50 Act, and if May’s ECJ red line can be breached once, then could the same happen for other issues such as citizens’ rights, air travel, security cooperation, pharmaceutical regulation and, indeed, single market membership or even Brexit itself?

But that begs still more questions. Even if the UK parliament were to decide it did not want to leave Euratom, what status does that have within the Brexit negotiations? Since exiting Euratom was in the Article 50 notification letter sent to the EU, does it any longer matter what the UK says? Sending the letter was not some trivial act, it was a formal declaration under the Lisbon Treaty. Can the UK unilaterally rescind one part of that letter? Or would it have to withdraw the whole notification? But is that legal? Article 50 does not provide any answers to these questions and they could ultimately only be decided by the ECJ! And if the letter could be amended, or withdrawn and re-submitted to exclude Euratom, would this require a fresh vote in the UK parliament?

Taken together, these issues arising from Euratom raise fundamental questions about the meaning of the referendum vote, the manner in which it has been interpreted, the incompetence with which that interpretation is being acted upon, and the processes at both national and European level through which Brexit is being pursued.

Perhaps the most important question – the nuclear question, so to speak – is that given there are very strong and obvious reasons for avoiding the chaos, damage, cost and complexity of leaving Euratom then do these not apply even more strongly to the entire matter of leaving the EU? Could Euratom be the first major crack that will bring down the whole ill-conceived edifice of Brexit?

Chris Grey is professor of organization studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Follow him @chrisgreybrexit

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