More Brexit choices

Could developing an expertise in small modular nuclear reactors help Britain pay its way after Brexit? The problem is, it's going to need international expertise, writes Pelle Neroth

I have had my dust-ups with Jean Quatremer over the years. The  intensely Anglophobe doyen of the French press corps in Brussels has always been a good bellwether of thinking inside the federalist, francophone bubble in the institutions  When  he was complaining a lot about British power in Brussels a few years ago, I knew Britain was doing well..

I remember going on a press trip organised by the Polish foreign ministry about ten years ago, during the high tide of Blairist UK influence. There was the usual bevy of nationalities  - excepting the French.  The organiser let slip that a couple of French journalists, possibly including M Quatremer, had written to her in French enquiring whether there would be interviewees speaking French and whether there would be French interpretation facilities on the bus.  She replied, in English, that there wouldn’t be, and she never heard from them again. There was laughter all around, from the Finns, Brits, Slovene, Italian journalists. Oh, those preposterous, arrogant, deluded French. Demanding their own language on the press bus!  Everyone knew that the English language rules.  I have lost count how many articles of Quatremer’s down the years that I have read that call for multilingualism – linguistic democracy - in the European institutions and European confabs generally.

Not real multilingualism, mind you. Mulilingualism as a synonym for more French.  I have often written on his blog: you are not really interested in linguistic equality, the rights of the Maltese or even the Germans to be understood in their native language. You just want to enhance the status of French.  I am usually called a “connard” by his readers, but, to his credit, Quatremer never censors me or complains when I write in English.  But always I was reminded of the fact that when the French use fine, noble words like “more multilingualism” or “grander Europe” one suspects it is just a cover for “more French” and “grander France”.  Maybe the British could learn a thing or two about disguising egoism behind beautiful phrases about universalism?

Anyway, Quatremer is  not angry now.  He is delighted at Brexit, and his recent articles are instructive. Always find out what your worst enemies are saying about you: they can be more honest than your friends.  While the British press seemed to be mixed to cautiously positive about the Brexit deal struck last Friday, 6 December, Quatremer calls it frankly “a British capitulation”.   In his interpretation – possibly through conversations to aides to Francois Barnier, the French negotiator and David Davis’s counterpart – the British are going along with all the EU demands as well as paying a high financial price on top of that. Interestingly, I had lunch in London with a very well connected figure in the Brexit camp who largely agreed with Quatremer: he thought May’s deal was a disaster.  He thinks Davis is a mediocrity who lacks the intellect to conduct complex negotiations; my contact calls the talks the “EU’s punishment beating of Britain” to dissuade anyone else from even attempting what Britain was trying to do. On top of the stonking price tag. there would still be free mobility and ECJ rule, at least for eight years, while there might not be a deal on the things Britain needs:  free trade in services – the British strength – or on passporting of financial products.  Previous Brit-bashing articles this month lovingly deal with the demob-happy mood of French expats  working in the financial industry in London.  “I went to several Brexit leaving parties this week,” said one French banker. “My own is next June – and then I will be leaving too.”

In yet another article clearly written on a psychological high, Quatremer shows how the French snagged the European banking authority for Paris from in front of the noses of the Irish.  The voting rules were as complex as “the Eurovision song contest” and the French sneakily played a clever lobbying game.  Paris lost the Olympics to London in a 2005 race (the games were in 2012) through Blair’s deviousness: now Paris is getting the Banking Authority from London, instead of Dublin, which was a kind of UK Lite. Revenge is a dish best served cold, eh?  And the punishment beatings of the UK financial industry have just started.

Which brings me to Britain’s new wheeze.  SMRs, small nuclear reactors to power a small town or a factory. Quicker, cheaper to build. Can reach parts of the country not adequately covered by the National Grid. Will stop the lights going out in a few years.  If you lose the financial industry, you have to get good at something else, right? Quickly.

The only problem, my contact inside the nuclear industry tells me, a veteran with many decades of experience, is that Britain does not have enough trained nuclear engineers.  The company pitching SMRs lacks expertise; being good at making power plants for nuclear submarines is not quite the same thing. Is there an old boys’ network at play here, putting one over a tired and ill-informed government?

 China has the best nuclear engineers – and millions of them.  Ironically once trained by the Europeans. A Belgian company has pioneered small reactor work. But will Brexit put off international collaboration initiatives? And here is a conundrum: open borders have meant Britain has been able, for the past two decades, to hire talent off the shelf rather than train its own people, in many areas. There is a huge skills gap in nuclear engineering.  But Britain does need international help to restore its nuclear industry base.  And legislation needs to be streamlined, simplified, to cut down on red tape. The current nuclear rules were written decades ago and are (in a word I sadly too often associate with Britain) old-fashioned.  Mini nuclear stations need to be modular, mass-produced, cheap. Alas, the British instinct is too often for the creatively quirky, the non-standard, the non-reproducible, the complex. Will this national tendency be fatally exacerbated when Britain goes alone?

Speaking of legislation, affected by my local Ukipper’s rant about Brussels red tape forcing restaurants to use different coloured chopping boards for different foods, I asked my highly connected Brexit mastermind in London whether it was true that Europe had more onerous environmental standards than Britain. I think he misunderstood what I was getting at: used to responding to people who worried that Britain would revert to dirty type after Brexit, he assured me, that no, no, the British have tougher environmental and health and safety rules. 

That is what  I suspected: that the British bureaucracy is up there with the best of them, and sometimes bullies the Europeans to adopt their rules – via the Brussels legislative process – than the other way around.  I also suspect that when the British government wants to keep something unpopular in place, or push it through,  it uses Brussels. It can then say ‘we can’t do anything about it’ and Brussels gets the blame generally. You could say that has backfired.

But the point is: if much red tape is Whitehall-originated, life may not be that much less bureaucratic when Britain leaves.

There ought to have been audits and analyses of all things before Cameron took the fateful  step of ordering a referendum on Brexit. But of course that would have meant admitting that much red tape – and perhaps old red tape, in the case of nuclear legislation – came from London, not Brussels.  





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