LONDON (ICIS)--It will be vital for the UK’s chemical industry to remain within the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) after the country leaves the EU in order to keep regulatory convergence intact, according to a member of parliament (MP) from the opposition Labour party.
Angela Smith added that the trade relationship between the UK and the other 27 EU countries following Brexit was the biggest “political dilemma” her country was facing in decades.
“It’s very difficult to see our trading relationship surviving unscathed if we start to diverge [in regulatory affairs]. It just doesn’t make any sense,” said the MP representing the Penistone and Stocksbridge constituency in South Yorkshire in the north of England.
“I think the chemical industry should stay in REACH [the EU’s chemical regulatory framework] and should be able to continue to be a member of ECHA – I do believe that very strongly. For instance, take the supply chain in any given sector: a bottle of fabric conditioner, for instance, crosses the border of four countries [during the production process].”
Smith has also been a vocal critic of her party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, regarding Brexit. The 68-year old Labour chief, elected in 2015, has been an MP for decades, and voted on several occasions against the party line.
The UK’s Labour party fully started supporting the EU in the 1980s, and that position has, at least officially, remained unchanged since then.
However, Corbyn, who is on the left-wing of the party, has widely been seen as a sceptical EU supporter because, in his view, Brussels has tilted too much towards a liberal approach to the economy.
His campaign to remain within the EU in the 2016 referendum was restrained. According to post-referendum polls, around 30% of Labour voters chose to leave the bloc.
“He didn’t campaign enthusiastically [for the EU permanence] and I was one of those who said he should have done so. Labour needed to show leadership in Europe [and] that leadership had to come from him,” said Smith.
Brexit negotiations are proving indeed a headache. Eighteen months after the vote to leave, and five months after starting proceedings to leave, the latest move on 4 December sent almost everything into disarray again.
What seemed a done deal regarding the “divorce proceedings” which would give way to UK-EU trade talks for a post-Brexit world, collapsed on that day due to the opposition of the Conservatives’ parliamentary partner, Northern Ireland’s DUP party, to the deal the UK government was offering to its partners in the EU.
Smith said it was wrong for the UK government to offer some sort of EU single market permanence only to Northern Ireland, but not to the rest of the UK, and added she is worried that the Good Friday peace accord from 1998 was now also at risk.
“Ireland has the capacity to completely break Brexit. The challenges thrown by the border [between Northern Ireland and Ireland] are immense, and we need to establish some border arrangement, but these issues are just impossible to resolve without causing real tensions in terms of the Good Friday agreement,” said Smith, pictured right.
“There is a real, naughty set of problems there in relation to Ireland.”
As another sign of how divided the UK is when it comes to Brexit, Smith's position on chemicals regulation practically matches that of a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Conservative party, Julie Girling, who in September advocated for a “third party” membership to ECHA so the UK could stay within it.
All those options, however, would imply the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would have to continue playing a role in legal affairs in the UK. However, leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ is one of the main objectives of the government.
Like Girling, Labour’s Smith is adamant to support two outcomes that currently are not actually on the table: to remain within the block or adopt a Norway-type, European Economic Area (EEA) style membership to the EU’s 500m-people single market.
“Let’s imagine for a moment that Theresa May [UK’s Prime Minister] wanted a deal that minimised damage to the economy and damage to our relationship with our neighbours: that deal would dictate membership of the single market [to avoid economic disruption],” said Smith.
“The UK has to be either a full member, an EEA member, or a third country. There is nothing in between. [There will not be a] bespoke deal for the UK. My preference would be to stay in, but if we leave the most palatable option would be a Norway-style approach.”
The UK’s chemical trade group CIA has also been lobbying for that option since the 2016 referendum.
ECHA’s outgoing director general, Geert Dancet, said in an interview with ICIS in October that the Helsinki-based regulator has been told to prepare for the “worst-case scenario” which would envisage the UK leaves the single market and all regulators underpinning it.
Smith concluded by saying that the UK's newly presented Industrial Strategy was going in the right direction, but said the Brexit shadow will also loom large on that front in years to come.
“Whether all of that [strategies to boost manufacturing] can survive the revolutionary impact of Brexit… That’s the big question,” she said.
“Companies and investors need certainty, and until they get that the UK’s investment levels won’t improve. If we fail as a country to secure an EEA approach, then we would be pursuing a free trade agreement [FTA], and there is a lot of evidence suggesting that would take longer than two years to finalise [extending the economic uncertaintly].”
As part of a wide-ranging interview, Smith also spoke about the UK’s shale gas reserves and said she would support hydraulic fracturing (fracking) under a tight regulatory framework.
Her constituency sits on top of shale gas reserves, and she is convinced it could create jobs and help transition to an economy with lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
However, as a sign of the dilemmas her own Labour party faces, Smith is at odds with the official line which promised to “ban fracking” in the June 2017 general election because the use of shale gas would only “lock us into an energy infrastructure” based on fossil fuels.
Smith’s views on fracking will be published by ICIS in a second interview article on 8 December.
Pictured above: The UK's premier leaves a press conference on 4 December in Brussels in which she announced there was still no deal on 'divorce proceedings'
Source: Xinhua News Agency/REX/Shutterstock
Angela Smith's picture source: Angelasmith-mp.org.uk
Interview article by Jonathan Lopez