Euratom: Where Are We Now?

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Hamid Yunis, partner and head of healthcare at the London office of international law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, discusses the potential negative impact of Brexit and the UK leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) on cancer care in the UK.

“The UK relies on Euratom for the diagnosis and treatment of some cancer patients. Leaving Euratom, without an appropriate alternative, will make it much harder for the UK to access key nuclear isotopes used in such diagnosis and treatment.”

Brexit was never going to be an easy task for Theresa May and the small majority Conservative Government, and if July and the latest announcements from the European Union’s chief negotiator are anything to go by, it seems that things could be a lot more complex going forward.

The UK Government has come under criticism from the healthcare industry for the apparent failure to foresee the consequences that Brexit would have on healthcare and, in particular, cancer care. MPs, scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals questioned the decision to leave Euratom and warned of the significant dangers posed to scientific research and the availability of vital medical treatment for, in particular, cancer patients. This article will look at what Euratom is, what leaving could mean and what, if any, are the options going forward.

Euratom: What Is It?

Euratom, the commonly used acronym for the European Atomic Energy Community, was established in 1957 by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany. Its purpose was, and still is today, to promote and support the European nuclear industry whilst safeguarding the transportation of nuclear materials, overseeing the safe disposal of nuclear waste and carrying out nuclear research. In basic terms, Euratom is the “nuclear common market” and enables the free movement of nuclear workers and materials between its member states.

The UK joined the treaty in 1973 and has since that date, been governed by the legal framework that underpins the regulation of the civilian nuclear industry which ensures that nuclear materials are not diverted from civilian to military activities.  Euratom was formed under its own independent treaty in 1957 and with the evolution of the EU, it is also governed by key EU institutions, including the European Court of Justice (ECJ). There remains substantial uncertainty on the extent to which the ECJ will have jurisdiction over the UK once Brexit has been implemented.

Euratom’s Importance to the United Kingdom

Euratom plays a vital role in healthcare, scientific research and the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom.

In particular, the UK relies on Euratom for the diagnosis and treatment of some cancer patients. Leaving Euratom, without an appropriate alternative, will make it much harder for the UK to access key nuclear isotopes used in such diagnosis and treatment. The UK relies on nuclear reactors in France, Germany and the Netherlands to produce these isotopes, which ensures safe supplies to the UK under the treaty. It is estimated that half a million scans are performed every year in Britain and that more than 10,000 patients undergo treatment as a result of such facilities being available. Pulling out of Euratom will not only risk the supply of these but may increase the costs for an already stretched National Health Service.

The disruption to the UK’s own nuclear industry may also be significant. It is Euratom that regulates, safeguards and inspects the county’s nuclear facilities, and having recently engaged in a multi-billion-pound program to build new stations, pulling out may cause significant delays and unforeseen consequences.

In order for the programs to go ahead, the government will need to replicate the arrangements under the agreements with Euratom, in particular, with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Scientific research that comes under the field of “nuclear” may also be affected.

“If the UK no longer provides a haven for international businesses to easily transport materials and workers to help with their research, the country may see an impact on business and therefore funding and employment may be adversely affected.”

If the UK no longer provides a haven for international businesses to easily transport materials and workers to help with their research, the country may see an impact on business and therefore funding and employment may be adversely affected.

What Next for the United Kingdom?

The obvious question to ask is whether the UK can remain part of Euratom but not the EU? This is becoming increasingly unlikely.

Not only is Euratom under the jurisdiction of the ECJ, as previously mentioned, but Theresa May herself stated that “Membership of Euratom is inextricably linked with membership of the European Union”.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s letter that accompanied the Article 50 notification (providing notice to the EU that the UK wanted to leave the EU), stated that references to the European Union should “be taken to include a reference to the European Atomic Energy Community”.

In order to address the concerns in relation to leaving Euratom, the UK government published a paper ahead of the first round of Brexit talks. Whilst the stance the government is taking on pulling out of Euratom appears to have slightly softened with the paper emphasising that there is a “strong, mutual interest” in ensuring that the UK continues to work closely with other member states, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, has since made it clear that the UK would not sign up to any mechanism which would give the ECJ continued oversight.

Today, we still remain uncertain on what the UK will do in relation to Euratom and the UK’s nuclear and healthcare industries. There is some talk about becoming an Associate Member, similar to the membership status held by Switzerland or the Ukraine.

However, again this seems unlikely as this model would require the UK to be subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ.  The most likely outcome will be setting up a new regime of cooperation and safeguards.

The current system will no doubt stay in place (as a transactional mechanism) until the UK is formally outside of the European Union to ensure business continuity occurs but it is imperative that the industry receives some clearer guidance as to where it is likely to be post March 2019. The alternative is that the UK industries, businesses and persons that membership of Euratom benefits could incur a loss of talent, research facilities and businesses.

Writer: Hamid Yunis

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