14 July 2017

The Government’s Euratom position paper, published this week, finally shows a bit of initiative in shaping the UK’s future relationship with the EU, but Marcus Shepheard argues that more concrete detail is needed.

Particle 50: Did anyone vote to leave Euratom?

Over the past few weeks there has been a growing debate over the UK’s decision to leave Euratom – with many voices calling for the UK to remain a full member. The Government, EU leaders and many lawyers have argued that the Article 50 process makes a Euratom exit inevitable. However, conflicting interpretations of the Euratom Treaty have led others to argue that the UK could remain a full member.

Whatever the legal position, there seems to be near unanimity that the UK wants to come as close as possible to retaining the benefits of membership. With a mounting chorus of concern from doctors, scientists, the nuclear industry and politicians about the impact of withdrawal, the Government has finally made a move.

Staking out a position and more

So far the EU has only produced proposals for withdrawal. That is all that is in their current negotiating mandate. In contrast, the Government’s new position paper on “nuclear materials and safeguards issues” not only contains the UK’s reaction to handling withdrawal but also sets out high-level principles on the future relationship that they hope the negotiations can achieve.

Two papers with a lot in common

The extent to which the UK paper agrees with the EU’s own paper, published three weeks ago, is quite telling. The two papers match each other step-for-step on the key issues, offering the hope that this element of the negotiations will more closely resemble an elegant ballet rather than a messy scrum.

On both nuclear safeguards and ownership of nuclear materials the UK position agrees with the EU’s withdrawal terms, sometimes adding detail but never significantly diverging. 

More than just the minimum

By going beyond the technicalities of withdrawal the UK’s position paper shows a welcome pragmatic approach to resolve uncontroversial elements of negotiations while pushing for the “comprehensive and deep” future relationship that is the UK’s stated ambition.

But while the principles look sensible, the specifics are missing. For example, do guarantees of future mobility for nuclear scientists extend rights to work for their families once the UK has ended free movement? The UK paper makes no mention of future oversight and enforcement. Some have speculated that leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) was a motivating factor for leaving Euratom and all other EU agencies.

In practice, the ECJ has never been called to rule on a dispute between the UK and Euratom. David Davis has hinted that the UK might countenance some new, unspecified arbitration arrangement, the options for which will be up for discussion at the Institute for Government next week.

A stalking horse for the main negotiations?

Whether leaving Euratom is a test case for wider Brexit negotiations remains to be seen. It may be that the UK needs separate agreements with the EU and Euratom (like Canada and Switzerland), or a single agreement that will cover both (like Georgia).

What is important for the Government is not just to continue taking the initiative with whatever agreements it makes, but that it also provides the details. This is important to regulators and agencies who will have to implement these decisions, as well as building wider public confidence in the negotiations.

The vague assertions of a minister are no substitute for concrete terms and objectives, laid out on paper for all to see. The Euratom paper is a step forwards in this direction, but more is needed if the UK is to enjoy success in these negotiations.

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