Hard BrExit Reality Bites UK Science

Before lunch today I listened to the Prime Minister’s much-heralded speech (full text here) at Lancaster House giving a bit more detail about the UK government’s approach to forthcoming negotiations to leave the European Union. As I had expected the speech was mainly concerned with stating the obvious – especially about the UK leaving the so-called Single Market – though there was an interesting, if rather muddled, discussion of some kind of associate membership of the Customs Union.

As I said when I blogged about the EU Referendum result back in June last year

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people.

The EU has made it perfectly clear all along that it will not compromise on the “four freedoms” that represent the principles on which the Single Market (correct name; “Internal Market”) is based. The UK government has also made it clear that it is running scared of the anti-immigration lobby in the Conservative Party and UKIP, despite the mountain of evidence (e.g. here) that immigration actually benefits the UK economy rather than harming it. A so-called “hard BrExit” approach has therefore been inevitable from the outset.

In any case, it always seemed to me that leaving the EU (and therefore giving up democratic representation on the bodies that govern the single market) but remaining in the Single Market would be completely illogical to anyone motivated by the issue of “sovereignty” (whatever that means).  So I think it always was – and still is – a choice between a hard BrExit and no BrExit at all. There’s no question in my mind – and Theresa May’s speech has hardened my views considerably – that remaining in the EU is by far the best option for the UK. That outcome is looking unlikely now, but there is still a long way to go and many questions have still to be answered, including whether the Article 50 notification can be revoked and whether the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Northern Ireland have to give separate consent. Interestingly, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 General Election included a commitment to work within the Single Market, so it would be within the constitutional limits on the House of Lords to vote down any attempt to leave it.

Overall, I felt the speech was worthwhile insofar as it gave a bit of clarity on some issues, but it was also full of contradictions on others. For example, early on the PM stated:

Parliamentary sovereignty is the basis of our constitution.

Correct, but in that case why did the UK government appeal the High Court’s decision that this was the case (i.e. that Parliamentary consent was needed to invoke Article 50)? Moreover, why if she thinks Parliament is so important did she not give today’s speech in the House of Commons?

This brings me to what the speech might imply for British science in a post-BrExit era. Here’s what I said in June 2016:

It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

I’m by no means always right, but I think I was right about that. It is now clear that UK scientists will not be eligible for EU funding under the Horizon 2020 programme.  Switzerland (which is in the Single Market) wasn’t allowed to remain in Horizon 2020 without freedom of movement, and neither will the UK. If the PM does indeed trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017 then we will leave the EU by April 2019. That means that existing EU projects and funding will probably be stopped at that point, although the UK government has pledged to provide short-term replacement funding for grants already awarded. From now on it seems likely that EU teams will seek to exclude UK scientists.

This exclusion is not an unexpected outcome, but still disappointing. The PM’s speech states:

One of our great strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities, backed up by some of the world’s best universities. And we have a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation.

So we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.

From space exploration to clean energy to medical technologies, Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.

Warm words, but it’s hard to reconcile them with reality.  We used to be “leading” EU collaborative teams. In a few years we’ll  be left standing on the touchlines. The future looks very challenging for science, and especially for fundamental science, in the UK.

But the politics around EU science programmes pales into insignificance compared the toxic atmosphere of xenophobia that has engulfed much of the UK. The overt policy of the government to treat EU citizens in the UK as bargaining chips will cause untold stress, as will the Home Office’s heavy-handed approach to those who seek to confirm the permanent residence they will otherwise lose when the UK leaves the EU. Why should anyone – scientist or otherwise – stay in this country to be treated in such a way? 

All of this makes me think those scientists I know who have already left the UK for EU institutions probably made the right decision. The question is how many more will follow?

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10 Responses to “Hard BrExit Reality Bites UK Science”

  1. Yes, it has been baffling to the Irish that so many commentators in the British media seems to think there is a smorgasbord of Brexit options available. Once the UK opts out of freedom of movement, it is up to to Brussels to decide what other common policies are available- and there was never any indication from Brussels of anything except a clean break. i suspect the election of Donald Trump in the US has distracted attention form the fact that the UK is being led by a coterie of politicians who have no idea what they are doing

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      It’s baffling to many of us in the United Kingdom too.

      It seems to many of us here that nearly all the British media and some politicians have gone mad, and are completely delusional. The problem is that they managed to convince a small majority of those who voted in the referendum that all the mad promises can be carried out.

      I apologise for the behaviour the people of the UK. I am very sorry.

  2. I am going through the process of applying for residency at the moment. The question to list all travel over 20+ year is silly, and it takes an awful lot of research which I doubt they will ever look at. The 86 pages reduced to a more manageable size using the on-line version. In fact, the travel part was really the only problematic page (I ran out of boxes on the on-line form having listed less than a third of all my travel, so someone clearly didn’t now what they were asking. Out MP explained how much we were values, and he was all in favour of using us as negotiating chips. My wife has to teach ‘british values’ at school. I was tempted to explain these to the MP! Now we wait. It seemed best to begin the process early. The city council only seems to have about 30 appointment slots per week. They may expect 50,000 applications. Even if families can do one appointment (I think), the back log will still be considerable. And you only have 5 days after the on-line submission before the mandatory appointment, otherwise the application had failed and you ned to re-apply – and re-pay. The appointment can only be made after submission. There may be a problem here down the line.

    But in a way I am more upset by the cosying up to the Trump administration. Somehow I didn’t quite see Theresa May as a Trump-girl but was that wrong? Is she a secret Trump-et?

    Enough moaning. There must be some good news somewhere?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      As a citizen of the United Kingdom, I apologise for the behaviour of the government (even though I didn’t vote for those politicians in government, and campaigned in the referendum to keep the UK within the EU).

    • I was chatting with an EU-national friend yesterday who is working on the Hinckley Point project. He said that nearly all of his team of engineers were EU nationals (working for a UK firm) and many of them were considering leaving the UK because of the shoddy treatment you speak of. I suspect many of them could get jobs in France and still work on the project — depriving the UK of tax revenue and expertise that would have been shared with British colleagues. I could be wrong, but I believe that many EU nationals will simply leave the UK, many heading for Germany — which has a signficant labour shortage. We will soon discover that the widespread belief that “everyone is desperate to live in the UK” is a hubristic fantasy.

      • “I could be wrong, but I believe that many EU nationals will simply leave the UK, many heading for Germany — which has a signficant labour shortage.”

        Not just EU nationals, but UK nationals. Among these are Jews making use of a German law which allows for fast-track German citizenship if one or one’s ancestors were wrongly deprived of German citizenship (e.g. by the Nazis). I think that this demonstrates quite clearly not only how Germany has changed in the last few decades, but also how the UK has changed.

        Labour shortage? I don’t know. Industry representatives tend to exaggerate this in the hope that they can employ foreigners for lower wages. (If the salary is negotiable, as it is for many highly qualified jobs, then foreigners might be willing to work for less, since they don’t know the cost of living in Germany, since it is better than what they have now, and so on.) Also, I think that immigration is not something which should be supported to alleviate labour shortages due to an aging population. First, if the foreigners don’t become integrated, there are other problems. If they do, they will have as few children as the natives, merely postponing the problem to the next generation. It is absurd to think that they will integrate well in every respect but will have enough children to offset the aging of the population (which is more than that required to offset the aging of the immigrant population). Second, siphoning off young and/or highly qualified people from elsewhere, perhaps from countries who paid for their qualifications, is morally wrong and will lead to bigger problems such as even worse medical care in places where it is already worse than the countries these people are moving to.

      • telescoper Says:

        You don’t know in Germany needs any astrophysicists do you?

      • “You don’t know in Germany needs any astrophysicists do you?”

        You can always apply. 🙂 Even non-EU candidates are considered on an equal footing. 🙂 In contrast to other jobs, professors can actually become civil servants for life (yes, there is still tenure) without being German citizens—at least that used to be the case.

        There was recently a post to be filled at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitation. The advertisement didn’t ask for applications. Rather, it asked for people to recommend other people. Presumably the institute and/or external people in a committee would rank them, start at the top, and make offers until someone accepts. I don’t know how common this is.

  3. Austerity, cutting taxes, and overall shrinking the state is part of their creed: they are neoliberalists first, and then leavers. The money so far given to the EU won’t be used to pay the NHS, as they have already admitted, neither it is likely that it will be used for funding science.

  4. Ilian Iliev Says:

    Getting permanent residence papers was actually not that bad for me and my family. It certainly required filling 90-page form and collecting a bunch of documents (for the last 5 years, not 25), but once send in (by mail, not in person) all was very fast and smooth.

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