LONDON – The government has insisted that the UK is going to leave Euratom when it leaves the European Union, despite the ongoing threat of a Conservative rebellion over the issue.
Brexit minister Steve Baker told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday morning: “You cannot, for practical and legal reasons, stay in Euratom while leaving the European Union.”
Euratom is the nuclear regulator for Europe that oversees the movement of nuclear fuel and waste through a system of safeguards and research. It is separate from the EU but is overseen by the European Court of Justice – the EU’s highest court.
A number of nuclear industry experts warn that leaving the treaty poses a number of risks to the country’s nuclear sector, including thousands of job losses, a significant reduction in overseas investment in nuclear power facilities in the United Kingdom, and Britain running out of nuclear fuel if a replacement treaty isn’t agreed quickly.
UK Atomic Energy Agency Chair Professor Roger Cashmore toldBuzzfeed News that the government’s handling of the nuclear issue in regards to Brexit was “alarming” and “a mess”.
It is one of many issues presented by Brexit that could lead to the government being defeated in the House of Commons, as around a dozen Tory MPs have spoken of their opposition to plans to leave Euratom.
In a Westminster Hall debate on the nuclear treaty, former Conservative housing minister Bob Neill said that leaving Euratom would be “cutting off your economic and scientific nose to spite your political face.”
Neill said: “We should do all that is possible legally to maintain those benefits, by whatever means it takes. We should not allow any thoughts of ideological purity to get in the way of achieving that.”
The Tory MP for Copeland Trudy Harrison, whose constituency contains the Sellafield nuclear power station, said: “Without an approved safeguards regime, as well as new bilateral cooperation agreements, nuclear trade to and from the UK would stop or at least slow down, which would be economically crushing for my constituency – a community which is hope to thousands of nuclear workers and is a centre of nuclear excellence.”
Addressing his colleague’s concerns, Baker told Radio 4: “We are certainly listening to those concerns but we do not believe those concerns are correct.”
Prime Minister Theresa May has also indicated that the UK will walk away from Euratom as part of its exit from the European Union, saying that the “EU and membership of Euratom are just inextricably linked.”
Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge yesterday told MPs in Westminster Hall that May’s “long-standing apathy” to anything involving the ECJ amounted to a “fetish”.
Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield said: “There is clear and strong cross-party concern about leaving Euratom. It is time for David Davis to clarify if he is content to allow the Prime Minister’s reckless red line, threatening jobs and cancer treatments, to stand.”
Dominic Cummings, the former aide to Michael Gove who was campaign director of the Vote Leave campaign, this week described the government as “morons” for wanting to end Britain’s membership of Euratom and described the decision as “unacceptable bull****” in a series of tweets.
Britain could be given associate membership
One possible scenario ministers are reportedly considering would see Britain leave Euratom as part of Brexit but seek to arrange an associate membership based on close links with the nuclear organisation.
The European parliament’s coordinator on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, yesterday hinted at this sort of arrangement.
“In my opinion, since in the Lisbon Treaty Euratom and the EU are fully interlinked, you cannot be fully part of Euratom and not part of the European Union,” the EU parliamentarian said.
The Great Repeal Bill will be published on Thursday but could face challenges from both opposition and Conservative MPs who want to force the government into pursuing a softer version of Brexit.