UK Politics

Brexit: Euratom legal advice should be published, say MPs

Sellafield nuclear power station Image copyright PA

The government should publish legal advice regarding its decision to leave the European nuclear regulator Euratom, former minister Ed Vaizey has said.

He told MPs the UK was proposing to leave the body "on a technicality" when it was actually distinct from the EU.

Urging a rethink during a Parliamentary debate, colleague Bob Neill said it would "not be the first time" legal advice given to ministers was wrong.

The government will publish a paper setting out their stance on Thursday.

Ministers have previously said they are legally obliged to leave Euratom at the same time as quitting the EU, insisting the UK can form a new arrangement with the body after Brexit, replicating its existing benefits.

The decision has caused unease in the nuclear industry amid fears it could affect safety, transportation of materials and access to cutting-edge research. The medical profession has also expressed concern about the effect on treatments, including for cancer, if there is reduced access to the radio isotopes used.

Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate, a number of MPs from all parties urged the government to reconsider its position and remain either a full or associate member of the organisation, which was created at the same time as the European Economic Community in 1957 but via a separate treaty.

'Distilled version'

Mr Vaizey, who has led a campaign against the move, said he accepted the nature of the legal advice received by the government but said MPs were in the dark about its substance and needed greater assurances.

"The trouble is that none of us have seen that legal advice," he said. "I know it is unprecedented for the government to publish legal advice but I think it would be very useful to have some form of distilled version of the legal advice on the link to Euratom."

John Howell, the MP for Henley, said the legal position was not "black and white" as some were suggesting.

He said negotiating associate membership would safeguard funding until 2022 but said this must be done before the summer of 2018 when Austria, which he described as "notoriously anti-nuclear", would take over the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Labour MP Daniel Zeichner said the decision to leave was being driven by the prime minister's "antipathy" to the European Court of Justice and her desire to "bring in its own referee rather than playing by the rules".

But Conservative Chris Green questioned whether it was feasible for the UK to remain part of every organisation connected to the EU and that if the UK had to leave Euratom then "so be it" - but it should do so on the "best possible grounds".

But Bill Cash said the legal necessity of exit was "unequivocal" while colleague Suella Fernandes said Euratom shared an "institutional structure" with the European Commission and European Court of Justice and to remain a member would be "going behind the back" of what the public voted for in last year's referendum.

'Alarming stories'

For the government, Business Minister Richard Harrington said there had been "alarming stories" in the press about what leaving Euratom would mean for the nuclear sector and medicine but that these were unfounded.

"We do not believe that leaving Euratom will have any adverse effect on the supply of medical radio isotopes."

Although they were covered by the Euratom treaty, it "does not place any restriction on the export of medical isotopes outside the EU".

He insisted the UK wanted to maintain a "collaborate and constructive relationship" with Euratom on all civil nuclear matters while establishing its own national safeguards regime under the auspices of the Office for Nuclear Regulation through new legislation.

On the legal issue, he said the UK's decision to serve notice of Brexit through its Article 50 letter would have been "defective" if Euratom had been left out.

"There was clear advice at the time about the unique nature of the legal relationship between the separate nature of the treaties and the inseparable nature of them," he said.

The BBC's Chris Morris said EU lawyers had been very clear that the UK would have to leave Euratom when leaving the EU, the alternative being some kind of bilateral agreement which would have to be negotiated and would involve the ECJ in some respects.

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