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21 June 2017

This one bill shows why Brexit will disappoint even its biggest fans

A little-noticed announcement in the Queen's Speech means more than you think. 

By Stephen Bush

If you want to understand why even Brexit’s loudest cheerleaders are in for disappointment, the most important bill announced in the Queen’s Speech is the Nuclear Safeguards Bill.

For a lot of Brexiteers, leaving the European Union is about sovereignty – that is, our freedom to set our own laws and our own regulations, free of the instructions of the EU.

But the problem with this approach is that there is no such thing as an independent sovereign nation. As Theresa May herself noted before the Brexit vote, even the world’s greatest powers, “the Roman Empire, Imperial China, the Ottomans, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, modern-day America, were never able to have everything their own way. At different points, military rivals, economic crises, diplomatic manoeuvring, competing philosophies and emerging technologies all played their part in inflicting defeats and hardships, and necessitated compromises even for states as powerful as these”.

Globalisation and international trade themselves impose limits on the freedom of nations. This should be obvious to anyone who has worked in a shop or a restaurant. You have a great deal of theoretical freedom about the condition of the goods you sell or the standard of service you provide – but it faces sharp limits because of what your customers will accept.

The same is true for nations which trade, conduct research together or indeed do any form of cross-border activity. After the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, we will, in theory, be free to set our own regulations and our own laws. But in practice, our customers and partners – the overwhelming bulk of which are still members of the EU27 – will set sharp limits on what regulations Britain adopts on its goods, services and manufacturing. The UK’s continued participation in Europe-wide anti-terror initiatives will, likewise, mean that foreign courts will have a measure of jurisdiction in Britain, too.

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And that’s where the Nuclear Safeguards Bill comes in. To free ourselves from having the European Court of Justice set “our laws”, we are leaving not only the European Union but Euratom, the Europe-wide regulatory body for nuclear material. Of course, we will still need to transport nuclear material across international borders for a variety of purposes after we leave the European Union, so we will bring in our own body to meet international safeguards.

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That’s right: though we will no longer have the benefit of Euratom membership, we will no longer participate in Euratom-managed nuclear research – currently the world’s largest operational nuclear fusion device is being run out of a British research institution – but we will still have our rules on nuclear regulation set de facto by the European Court of Justice.