Theresa May made a high-profile appeal last week for greater consensus about how the UK approaches its impending exit from the EU. But if the prime minister really wanted to see cross-party agreement in action, she could have popped into Parliament’s Westminster Hall last Wednesday, where a debate on the UK’s membership of Euratom was taking place.
However, May would not have been pleased by what she saw: Conservative and opposition MPs ganging up to outline their opposition to her plan to quit the pan-European nuclear body.
The debate’s sponsor, Albert Owen – the MP for the north Wales constituency of Ynys Mon, which is the location of the Wylfa B nuclear plant – was in little doubt that politics lay behind May’s determinations to quit Euratom. “It isn’t essential that we leave Euratom just because we are leaving the EU. We are leaving because Number 10 has a red line. It is a political reason not a legal reason, law is an excuse,” he said.
Richard Harrington, recently appointed energy minister, insisted that the UK had no option but to leave Euratom because of its “inseparable relationship” with the EU.
He was backed up by Bill Cash, the backbench Conservative MP who has been campaigning against the EU since the early 90s, when he made John Major’s prime ministership a misery. He said the link was spelt out in the treaties that govern the UK’s relationship with the trading bloc.
However, several of Cash’s backbench colleagues on the Conservative side were unconvinced that the picture is as black and white as he painted it.
“The likelihood is that an interested party might seek to litigate the matter. It would be much better for the government to seize the initiative.”
“Our membership of Euratom is separate to that of the EU,” said Ed Vaizey – former culture minister, who co-authored a recent Sunday Telegraph column making the case for the UK’s continued membership of Euratom.
Bromley MP Bob Neill – an ex-barrister who is chair of the House of Commons justice select committee, argued that the government should not treat legal advice as Holy Writ. “It wouldn’t be the first time that government and (European) Commission legal advice has been proved to be wrong,” he said, adding that given the “many benefits” which the UK enjoyed thanks to Euratom membership, “ideological purity” should not get in the way of the UK’s energy interests. “If legally we can remain, we should do so,” he said.
And if the government was putting so much store on its legal advice, it should be published, said Vaizey, who appealed to the government to publish a distilled version of its advice.
Neill warned that if the government didn’t publish its advice, it was likely that its hand would be forced legally. “The likelihood is that an interested party might seek to litigate the matter. It would be much better for the government to seize the initiative.”
Alan Whitehead, Labour shadow spokesman on energy, agreed that the legal position wasn’t as clear as the government suggested.
And he said the ramifications of the withdrawal from Euratom hadn’t been fully explored by the government. As an example, he said, clauses in the government’s Hinkley power station agreement meant that the companies involved in the project could walk away from the deal and demand up to £20 billion worth of compensation if the UK left Euratom unilaterally.
Since the debate, both the government and the European Commission have published their position papers for the upcoming negotiations.
The Commission is blunt that the Euratom treaty will cease to apply to the UK from the date when the country withdraws from the EU. Its focus, however, is on the transfer of Euratom property and equipment, which Brussels says it have to be paid for.
The safeguarding of the UK’s nuclear materials will be this country’s own responsibility. And Paul Blomfield, a Labour backbencher, warned that withdrawing from Euratom would only be the start of the government’s complexities.
Ministers would have to negotiate individual nuclear co-operation agreements with all of its nuclear partners outside of the EU, which would be “complex” and “lengthy” to achieve within the 20 months left until the UK leaves the EU. He questioned why the government wanted to add to its existing Brexit burdens by taking on this task.
Enough Tory backbenchers spoke out against the government’s Euratom withdrawal plans last week to suggest that they are unlikely to emerge unscathed when the bill goes through the House of Commons.
At the very least, it is clear that ministers will have to start coming up with some more convincing responses than they have now to assuage these concerns.