EU agencies: a Brexit loss nobody’s talking about

EU agencies play an important role in food regulation. Shutterstock

Brexit doesn’t only mean the UK leaving the European Union, the single European market, the European Economic Area, the customs union, the European Investment Bank and the European Atomic Energy Community. There are also more than 40 specialist EU agencies throughout the continent from which the UK will no longer benefit.

Some, such as the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, have important regulatory roles. These agencies are full of experts whose work directly benefits British people’s health, security and economic well-being. Are they experts Britain can do without?

Leave campaigners implied that quitting the European Union would be as easy as giving up a gym membership. Instead, the process looks fiendishly complicated – and that’s before the impact of abandoning EU agencies has been discussed. Presumably Britain will no longer contribute, nor have access to agency expertise unless it negotiates continuing association. It would have to pay for that privilege.

One of these bodies is the European Defence Agency in Brussels. The EDA seeks to enhance European defence and security by identifying duplication and inefficiency between nations. It makes recommendations about how to improve equipment interoperability between armed forces, weapons systems, and software. It encourages pooling and sharing in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness, pushing member states towards a better use of their resources. This is clearly in the UK’s national interest and in the interests of NATO. Reduced engagement with the EDA cannot possibly benefit Britain’s security.

Other agencies include the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, based in Stockholm, the Agency for European Global Navigation Satellite Systems in Prague, and the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki. These all deal with global concerns of high importance, so reduced UK involvement smacks of insularity and arrogance.

Manifold benefits

EU agencies cover many health, safety and security issues. Collectively they help to ensure the quality of the food people eat, the medicines they take, chemicals, education, justice, the quality of working life, environmental protection (European Environment Agency), and the safety of transport by air, sea and rail (European Aviation Safety Agency, European Maritime Safety Agency, European Agency for Railways). They work on international security (Institute for Security Studies), policing (EUROPOL), fundamental rights, justice, cybersecurity and many other fields. The UK should remain at the heart of international efforts to boost safety and the quality of life in all these areas.

Among the more esoteric but nevertheless important is the wonderfully named Clean Sky Joint Undertaking. Clean Sky works with European aviation industries to reduce the environmental impact of flying by developing technologies to halve noise, cut carbon dioxide emissions and reduce fuel consumption.

Two EU agencies are based in London. One, the European Banking Authority, was set up in the wake of the financial crisis to help stabilise the EU by safeguarding the integrity and efficiency of the banking sector. It will now almost certainly move to a eurozone country. This would mean a loss of expertise that contributes to the security of UK banking. The financial crisis and the Libor scandal highlight the arrogant complacency in assuming that the City can manage banking perfectly well without the transnational expertise the EBA contributes.

The European Medicines Agency is also in London. This researches chronic conditions including AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and diabetes. It contributes to developing medicines for children, rare diseases, advanced therapies, and herbal and veterinary medicines. It brings together clinical research from across Europe. In 2013, the EMA dealt with over 1m adverse drug reports and recommended 81 medicines for authorisation, including 13 for treating cancers. Does Britain no longer wish to engage with the EMA?

EU nations take part in a joint defence exercise in 2015. EPA/Claudio Peri

Presumably, UK negotiators will enjoy the immense challenge Brexit presents. They might arrange continued membership of a few EU agencies, some of which may welcome UK involvement, but the most rabid Brexiteers would cut all links. Will the government regard agency expertise as expendable and give up the benefits? Or will the UK create its own equivalents? This would mean duplicating work and failing to profit from the international knowledge, intellectual capital and economies of scale provided by these agencies. It would also damage the UK’s reputation as a valued partner in creating knowledge capital for the benefit of all humanity.

Unfortunately, post-Brexit resentment is inevitable. Britain will suffer from cutting its engagement with EU agencies, adding to the already visible loss of expertise from universities, hospitals and research institutes. Prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove declared that the UK has had enough of experts. No-one expected the government to adopt this sentiment with such bizarre enthusiasm.

Quitting the single market will close down access to EU agencies. Some transactional relationships will survive, but few divorces end up as harmonious partnerships between friends.

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