Although it may have passed most people by, a problem was recently discovered with the Airbus A330 aeroplane flight control computers. Sensor blockage could, under certain circumstances, lead to the unexpected activation of the aeroplane’s angle-of-attack protection. Airbus has updated the software on the flight computers and the issue has been resolved.
Why do I mention this important but obscure tale of airline safety? Because the issue was brought to Airbus’s attention by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the EU regulatory agency that works to make sure passengers in the UK and across Europe can fly safely. The work they do is highly technical and requires the knowledge of experts with years of experience in the aviation sector. EASA employs over 800 people, and has a budget of €140 million.
Over the last few weeks, I have been asking Government departments how much they will need to spend, and how many staff they’ll need to hire, to replace the work currently done by EU agencies like the EASA once we leave the EU. The short answer from Ministers is ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ – just like their fabled 58 sectoral analyses of Brexit. The UK participates in 39 EU agencies, everything from the European Medicines Agency and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to the European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Authority.
Together, these agencies spend hundreds of millions of pounds and employ thousands of people regulating vast swathes of our economy. The UK simply does not have the capacity to replace these agencies if we crash out of the EU without a deal. It’s that simple. To do so, we would have had to begin putting structures in place and training experts long before the Brexit referendum took place.
This a huge problem that will affect everyone, in all parts of the country. These agencies ensure the safety of our planes, our food, our medicines and our chemicals. They protect consumers, the environment and human health. They are central to Britain’s economic prosperity. The European Chemicals Agency, for example, is responsible for registering chemicals. Without these permits, British chemical and pharmaceutical companies will not be able to export and sell their products in Europe.
The UK chemical and pharmaceutical sector is crucial, worth around £15 billion to UK GDP every year, directly supporting over 150,000 jobs in this country. We cannot throw that away. It’s not just politicians saying this: the head of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority says he’s yet to meet anyone of substance that supports the UK leaving EASA.
Ministers appear to have no idea how to resolve this predicament. They are still threatening to walk away from the EU with no deal, meaning that UK participation in every agency would end. Overnight, huge swathes of the UK economy would cease to operate effectively. Companies wouldn’t be able to export their products, hundreds of thousands of jobs would be at risk and, in all likelihood, there would be a period of time in which flights between the UK and the EU would not operate. Negotiating to remain part of these agencies for a transitional period makes more sense, but there is no evidence that the negotiations are going well enough for that to be agreed. In any case, it would just create another cliff-edge a couple of years later.
So what should the Government do about this mess? First, they should take the absurd and self-harming threat of a destructive no-deal Brexit off the table. Next, they should set out their intention to remain in both the single market and the customs union on a long-term basis, and to continue full participation in all EU agencies. This would immediately alleviate the uncertainty for business, and would remove the need to spend hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on new civil servants instead of on our NHS.
If they do not, they will be guilty of sleepwalking ever closer towards the cliff-edge, and taking the country’s jobs, investment and the tax base down with them.