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The EU’s nuclear option in the Brexit negotiations

The European Commission has made it clear the Brexit deadline applies to Euratom as well. 

By Julia Rampen

The European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier chose a hiking metaphor for his veiled warning to the UK Prime Minister Theresa May. 

Referring to their shared love of walking in the mountains, he said that hikers had to “learn a certain number of rules” – like looking “at what accidents might happen”. There could, he added ominously “be falling rocks”.

While this raises expectations for a Sherlock Holmes style end to Brexit, with Sherlock May and Barnierty (switch according to your allegiances) tussling on the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, the real threat is lurking in the small print of the European commission’s demands.

The EU’s latest negotiation position is outlined on what it calls the “Taskforce on Article 50 Negotiations with the United Kingdom” and everyone else would call the EU’s Brexit website. In a document published on 3 May 2017, it states:

It is recalled that the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement should be at the latest 30 March 2019, unless the European Council, in agreement with the United Kingdom, unanimously decides to extend this period in accordance with Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union. Failing that, on 30 March 2019 at 00:00 (Brussels time), all Union Treaties and the Treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community cease to apply to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom will become a third country from the withdrawal date.

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The European Atomic Energy Community (also known as Euratom) was established in 1957 and is a means of developing, distributing and selling nuclear energy. In particular, UK scientists have benefited from funding for research, safety regulations and a level playing field when accessing nuclear fuels. 

The UK government has already accepted that it will have to leave Euratom when it leaves the EU. But the Nuclear Industry Association, a trade body, is desperate to retain the status quo. It is calling for a transition arrangement, or even continued membership. If the UK jumps ship on 30 March 2019, without safeguards in place, it could be “in breach of its obligations under international nuclear law”. 

MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee (now suspended because of the election) are on red alert. In a recent report, they urged the government to seek to delay the UK’s departure from Euratom – else risk “disruptions to trade and threats to power supplies”.

But as the European Commission document illustrates, it is in the EU’s interests to fuse Euratom to the wider Brexit negotiations. Tory MPs may delight in baiting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn about his distaste for nuclear energy. But if, as expected, they are the party leading the UK’s Brexit negotiations, they will have their own nuclear problem to keep under control.