Brexit Challenges Still Failing to Convince the UK of Grim Realities

July 17, 2017
Peter O'Donnell
Peter O'Donnell

Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Applied Clinical Trials

Peter O'Donnell discusses Brexit challenges and how the life sciences industry is affected.

Just before the first real Brexit negotiating session took place in Brussels today, the UK government emitted yet another of its aspirational messages about the brilliant future that, it claims, awaits the British life sciences sector. 

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health offered reassurances to British drugmakers and regulators that, "We want a positive new partnership with the EU for the good of life science industries and NHS patients." Speaking to the British BioIndustry Association (BIA), on Friday, James O'Shaughnessy (who goes officially by the title of Baron O'Shaughnessy of Maidenhead in the Royal County of Berkshire) went on to underline the government’s commitment to support and promote UK life sciences in the negotiations with the EU. He emphasized what he called the government’s vision for future collaboration between the UK and the EU, and repeated the familiar line that the UK is a “scientific, regulatory, and industrial center of excellence.”

The BIA immediately issued a fulsome welcome for his remarks. It celebrated the minister's statement of "key principles that must underpin any future relationship with the EU" that included a continued "leading role" for the UK in ensuring public health in the EU. And it fully endorsed his view that the "industry must be able to get their products into the UK market as quickly and simply as possible, with the UK and Europe at the forefront of medical innovation."

But this is all just plain nonsense. It is all part of the same catastrophic self-delusion that is characterizing the entire Brexit debate in the UK, which is now led by a government in complete denial about the realities confronting the UK, its industry, its citizens, and, come to that, its life sciences. From this basis, the government is in no position to offer any reassurance to anyone on anything, as it blunders ignorantly into a future it has not even begun to analyze seriously. The UK is a supplicant, a simple beggar, in the situation it has cast itself into, with a foolish referendum, a foolish vote, and now with a foolish government unable to put together even a slender majority without buying the support of some deeply Eurosceptic fringe players.

The UK has almost no cards to play at all in this debacle. In trying to buoy up its morale with the constant repetition of meaningless slogans about "regaining control" and "no deal is better than a bad deal," it is demonstrating day-by-day how ill-equipped it is to negotiate any decent terms for its withdrawal from the EU.

The negotiations starting this week are aimed at reaching early agreement on what will happen to EU citizens in the UK, at how much money the UK owes to the EU, and issues such as the jurisdiction of the EU’s top court. Without agreement on these points, the EU says it will not discuss any of the subsequent arrangements between the EU and the UK-and it holds the upper hand, because if the UK does not agree, then the UK will be a "no-deal" situation that will jeopardize everything from nuclear safety to UK flights to Europe (with the trade in medicines, or the future of life sciences, just a couple more casualties among dozens of other knock-on effects).

Yet on each of these three key issues, the UK government's line is an accident waiting to happen. The UK's complex offer of "settled status" for EU citizens has already been dismissed as inadequate by the European Parliament-which has a veto on any EU-UK deal. On the financial settlement, the UK foreign secretary said days ago that the EU "can go whistle" if it expects the UK to settle its debts on leaving the EU-obliging the UK's chief negotiator to issue an unconvincing qualifying statement as the formal talks opened. And on the authority of the European court, the current government position-in line with months of its empty rhetoric-is that British courts must be supreme.

Not a good start. And hardly a start at all, given that the referendum took place a year ago, the UK notified its intention to withdraw from the EU nearly six months ago, and the deadline for completing the entire negotiation process is just over 18 months away. So, any promises or reassurances that the UK government is currently offering are valueless. If it cannot reach agreement with the EU on the basics of its withdrawal by the fall, then by March 2019, the UK will be downgraded to the status of any other World Trade Organization member in its dealings with the EU. If the UK life sciences sector is serious about safeguarding its future, it needs to stop dancing to the government's current tune and demand a real switch in negotiating strategy.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.