Senior Tory MPs have backed Britain retaining membership of Euratom , with one warning against “cutting off your economic and scientific nose to spite your political face”.
MPs from across the political divide used a parliamentary debate to raise concerns over the risks to high-paid, high-skilled jobs, cancer treatment and the nuclear fusion supply chain as a result of withdrawal from the European civil nuclear regulator.
Arch-eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash was also among those suggesting the UK seeks a form of associate membership of Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community) post-Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May has opted to pull out of Euratom, w hich is not formally part of the EU but is under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
She has signalled Britain will seek a close post-Brexit relationship with the regulator, similar to those enjoyed by other non-EU countries, amid reports of growing Tory disquiet over her plan to leave it.
Tory former minister Bob Neill said Euratom brings “very great benefits” to the UK, telling a Westminster Hall debate: ” We should do all that is possible legally to maintain those benefits, by whatever means it takes, we should not allow any thoughts of ideological purity to get in the way of achieving that.
“My judgment is that if we can legally remain within Euratom, we should do so.”
Mr Neill also said associate membership would be the “next best thing”, adding: “I think it should be the Swiss model because I think the small amount of jurisdiction of the ECJ is a minor price to pay for the benefits.
“I can’t think anyone would object to the very modest movement of skilled nuclear scientists who only benefit this country, that again would be cutting off your economic and scientific nose to spite your political face, and we shouldn’t do such a thing.
“I think that would be a good compromise.
“But we should stay in until such time as that is in place because we can’t have any risks in the interim.”
Tory former minister Ed Vaizey asked for legal advice which has influenced the Government’s position on Euratom to be published in a “distilled” version.
He also said those who wish the UK to remain in Euratom will be “seeking our own legal advice”, adding: “There has been no impact assessment of the impact of leaving Euratom, or rather what the Government’s position currently is which is to leave Euratom and then rejoin it.
“What is being offered to the Government is a time-saving opportunity.”
Tory MP Alex Chalk (Cheltenham), intervening on Mr Vaizey, also said: “Continuing membership of Euratom does not in any way preclude the striking of free trade deals or controlling our borders, which are the stated aims of Brexit.”
Sir Bill, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee in the last parliament, backed the UK’s legal position on the need to leave Euratom as part of the Brexit process.
He suggested a “constructive” approach to find answers, adding he believes there is “common ground” between the UK and EU as the international rules for the industry appear already to be converging.
Sir Bill went on: “If that is the case, as I think it probably is, then there is a basis on which we can move forward to some form of cooperation.
“I very much take up the view of the honourable member regarding a working group, I think that’d be an interesting idea and I also think it’d be consistent with the idea of moving towards something like, perhaps, associate membership.”
Tory back-bencher Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) earlier said the UK had been awarded £500 million of contracts in the nuclear fusion supply chain, adding: “All of that is put at risk, is it not, if we leave Euratom.”
Labour’s Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) said: “If we leave Euratom and the uncertainty, in the meantime, risks high-paid, high-skilled jobs going overseas which we can’t afford right now and our membership of Euratom is key for the future of our civil nuclear defence industry.”
Shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield urged the Government to note the “clear consensus” in the debate, adding: “If she (the Prime Minister) doesn’t shift her position on Euratom, Parliament will shift it for her.”
Business and energy minister Richard Harrington said the primary aim in negotiations was to maintain the UK’s mutually successful civil nuclear cooperation with Euratom and the rest of the world.
The first phase of negotiations, he said, would start on July 17 following the publication of the Commission’s position paper on Euratom and the UK’s own position paper would be published “imminently”, he added.
Mr Harrington said the UK would “avoid the cliff edge”, adding: “We’re ready and we’re confident that we can find common ground.”
He said the UK Government is keen to ensure there was minimum disruption to civil nuclear trade and cooperation with non-European partners, so the UK was negotiating with the US, Canada, Australia and Japan to have the “appropriate cooperation agreements” in place.
Mr Harrington added: “The Government’s determined that the nuclear industry in this country should continue to flourish in trade, regulation and innovative nuclear research and we’re determined to have a constructive, collaborative relationship with Euratom.
“The UK is a great supporter of it and will continue to be so.”
On the safety and health concerns, he added: “I must make it clear that we remain committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety and support for the industry.
“We will continue to apply international standards on nuclear safeguards.
“We do not believe that leaving Euratom will have any adverse effects on the supply of medical radio isotopes.”