There are no winners from Brexit’s nuclear option
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Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran argues that doing the right thing on European nuclear cooperation still can't trump the Brexit dogma.
Discussion of Europe's nuclear community – Euratom – didn't feature heavily during the referendum campaign.
As well as nuclear safeguards, Euratom also governs the trade of nuclear materials, allows for scientific research, and provides for movement of nuclear scientists.
I have yet to meet a single Leaver who ever knew what it was, let alone a good reason for leaving it. Yet it has become a symbol of the fallout (pun intended) of Brexit, and the government's approach to leaving Euratom is telling on so many levels. This week saw the passage of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill through the Commons. It is a 'contingency' measure needed in case we don't achieve a new agreement in time. The truth is that the Euratom issue, much like the rest of Brexit, is an entirely self-inflicted problem. Moreover, there is a legal dispute whether we actually need to withdraw from it even if we do leave the EU, as it's not technically a full part of the EU treaties and operates under its own agreement. So why is the government so insistent on pulling us out of Euratom? In short, it's because the arbiter of any disputes between its members is the European Court of Justice. And, as we all know, Downing Street – running scared of the hardline Tory Brexiteer ideologues – has declared any truck with the ECJ a red line.
The backroom whispers in the members-only Smoking Room are of MPs of all stripes lamenting how ridiculous this situation is. I joined many of them in sponsoring a cross-party amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to keep us in Euratom indefinitely until a new comprehensive arrangement is struck. In fact, it attracted the most signatories of any of the amendments to the bill. However, when it came to following through, Conservative MPs bottled it.
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The government has said it wants a 'close association' with the Euratom Research and Training Programme and will seek open trade arrangements for nuclear goods. Both laudable ambitions – but this could all be best resolved by remaining in Euratom instead of creating uncertainty and seeking to negotiate what will certainly be a second rate option. In the meantime, the brilliant nuclear scientists from the EU, working together with their UK colleagues at places like Culham in Oxfordshire, on vital nuclear fusion research, are left in limbo. Some of these people, taking their precious skills with them, have already begun to drift away from the UK.
Then there is the issue of medical radioisotopes. As Mike Galsworthy explained in the New European last week, these nuclear materials are used in cancer treatments and have very short half-lives, so any delays at borders would diminish the number of doses available. Those in the medical industry are deeply concerned.
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What could be more pressing than making sure cancer patients still get treated? Well, it seems that, once again, keeping the fractious Tory party together through insistence on delivering a hard Brexit trumps the national interest.
The Government is keen to play this down, and accuses those who raise it as scaremongers, but the industry needs more than just assurances from the Government that a 'close relationship' will be achievable. Industry experts suggest it could take up to seven years to negotiate a treaty as wide-ranging as Euratom so I fail to see how we are going to get this finished in time.
Remaining in Euratom or committing now to associate membership would provide much-needed clarity.
• Layla Moran is MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and Lib Dem spokesman for education and science