The EU Referendum and Article 50

The “No” vote in the UK’s recent referendum on membership of the European Union has, in itself, plunged the UK into political, economic and social turmoil – even though the referendum was purely advisory (not legally binding on the government), and even though no political decision on a British exit has been taken, much less an exit effected in practice.

A lot has been written in analysis of the constitutional problems raised by the vote and its political fall-out. The clearest example to date is probably the piece by David Pannick QC in the Times:

Even that piece, though, is quite detailed and involved. I had to read it several times before I could state it simply enough to believe that I had understood its logic myself – so I thought the resulting summary might be helpful to others. Here it is:

1. Invoking Art.50 commits the UK, irreversibly, to a process which requires the amendment of existing UK statutes.

2. Existing UK statutes can only be amended by Act of Parliament*.

3. Therefore, Art.50 cannot lawfully be invoked without an Act of Parliament (and consequently a parliamentary vote).

Conclusion: it would be unlawful for the Prime Minister to invoke Art.50 without putting that decision to the vote in parliament.


* And crucially, the PM may not revoke (“frustrate”)  a prior parliamentary decision by invoking the “royal prerogative”.

The UK and EU research

This week I am in Brussels to review a project part funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. In line with Horizon 2020’s criteria, this project is large scale (it will specify infrastructure for academic and research bodies across the continent) and pan-national (it’s about integrating institutions’ login systems with their counterparts across the EU and beyond). 

The UK’s academic login federation is part of the project – as you would expect. UK students need federated access to other institutions’ digital resources, as foreign students need access to ours. Large scale scientific research, too, depends on the ability for resources to be securely shared regardless of their geographic location.

In future, as a non-EU country, the UK risks finding itself more or less excluded from projects like this one. At best, it will be allowed to participate (like Switzerland or the USA) but at a higher cost: UK participation will be fully at UK expense, with no EU grant funding. At worst, the inclusion of UK members in consortium proposals will simply make those proposals less likely to survive what is already a tough evaluation process (I know – I’ve been an evaluator and a rapporteur in that process). 

But the damage doesn’t stop there. 

“Fine,” you might say, “if we can’t join EU-funded projects, we’ll just do without”. But think, for instance, of the academic login project I’m looking at this week. Even if the UK is not part of that consortium, it still needs to federate with non-UK institutions. It will have to achieve interoperability and compliance anyway, but it will have to do so without having influenced the architecture, and without the EU grant funding from which others will benefit. That sounds to me like a lose-lose, and a recipe for lost competitiveness.

But that’s not all.

Look at it from the perspective of a company which wants to stay at the forefront of large-scale research. If you’re based in Britain, you exclude yourself from subsidised participation in EU collaborative research, and thereby from the whole community of potential partners who, themselves, are benefiting from EU grant funding.

If you have the option, you’d do better to shift your operations to an EU member state, and reap the benefits of a collaborative framework, 27 countries’-worth of capable partners, and grant funding into the bargain. The UK, as a base for large-scale collaborative research, will go into a vicious cycle of reduced funding and increased cost.

The project of this week’s review, large-scale though it is, is just one microscopic part of the picture. For example, I have had similar involvement with EU-level projects dealing with e-identity, emergency response in the financial services sector, biometric authentication at borders, privacy and personal data management, ‘big data’ and financial services, cross-border sharing of research infrastructure, and privacy of medical research data, and so on. And of course, those projects too are a tiny fraction of the scope of EU research funding as a whole.

Nor is this just a matter of academic research: exactly the same logic applies, for instance, to compatibility with EU data protection and privacy laws. We cannot survive by ignoring them, and we have just thrown away the option of influencing the development of laws with which we will, in any case, need to comply.  

In that context, for politicians to claim that the UK can benefit by “taking back control” is delusion on a colossal scale. The UK insulates itself from its European counterparts to its own detriment; it can only thrive by collaborating and interoperating with them. The future we face now is of having to interoperate with systems and laws we didn’t help draft, on a scale we can’t afford alone, and of paying full price for the privilege.

Bravo, Eurosceptics. Your bumper-sticker politics represents a giant step towards a second-rate future. This is now the bumper sticker for our country:

“If you thought education was expensive, just wait until you’ve tried ignorance.”