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?