brexit flags

Draft Brexit agreement confirms UK would leave Euratom

Image credit: Dreamstime

Following an intense discussion period and ending more than two years of negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May has presented the governments’ draft withdrawal deal, which proposes the terms on which the UK could withdraw from the EU in March 2019.

Although much detail relating to the UK’s future scientific and industrial relationships with the EU has not yet been thrashed out, the 585-page draft document contains hints that some fears about the impact of Brexit on UK science may not be fully realised.

Leading figures in UK science have been highly critical of the decision to withdraw from the EU, and warned that uncertainties regarding European research funding and free movement of researchers (on which many research projects rely) could severely damage both UK and European science. In October, 29 Nobel laureates signed a letter calling on Brexit negotiators to reach a deal which protects research, while a survey of scientists at the Francis Crick Institute – Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory – found that 51 per cent were less likely to stay in the UK following Brexit.

Although detail remains limited, the documentation released so far suggests that visa-free short visits may be possible between the UK and EU. This could allow researchers to continue to attend international conferences but does not provide reassurances about concerns over their free movement and partaking in long-term research projects.

EU citizens currently resident in the UK could – according to this proposed form of Brexit – apply for permanent residence, potentially allowing European scientists based at UK institutions to remain at work in the UK if they chose to do so.

The future of UK participation in the Horizon research-funding programmes will be determined at a later date. The government has previously pledged to provide any outstanding funding for UK researchers in receipt of Horizon 2020 grants, in order that those research projects may be completed. It is likely that the UK will apply for “associate” status for future Horizon programmes (currently held by Israel, Switzerland, Norway and several other countries), which would allow UK researchers to access research funding in the exchange for the UK contributing to the programmes.

Meanwhile, there have been concerns that the UK’s withdrawal from the European nuclear regulator (Euratom) prior to the agreement of new arrangements could have a severely negative impact on the UK nuclear industry, particularly with regards to safeguarding for civil nuclear power.

The document is titled: “Draft Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community”, confirming that under this agreement, the UK would withdraw from Euratom when it leaves the EU. Euratom is formally independent of the EU, but all full members of Euratom must also be EU member states, and the organisation is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The agreement reasserts promises made by the government in a statement in December 2017 that the UK will become responsible for maintaining international nuclear safeguards following Brexit, while new agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency will replace existing UK-Euratom agreements.

“The [UK] shall have sole responsibility for ensuring that all ores, source materials and special fissile materials covered by the Euratom Treaty and present on the territory of the [UK] at the end of the transition period are handled in accordance with relevant and application international treaties and conventions, including but not limited to international treaties and conventions on nuclear safety,” the agreement states.

The agreement also confirms that at the end of the transition period, the UK government must reimburse the EU the value of Euratom equipment, such as special fissile material, located in the UK (at Sellafield, Dounreay, Sizewell, Capenhurst and Springfields). This equipment will then become UK property.

The agreement does not specify how the UK will continue to interact with some Euratom projects, such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which is the world’s largest nuclear fusion experiment. The future of funding for the Joint European Torus – a massive plasma physics experiment based in Oxfordshire – remains uncertain.

A vote on the draft withdrawal agreement is expected before the end of the year.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles