Britain and the EU: the view from the chemicals sector

There were 10 fringe events dedicated to discussing the UK’s role in Europe on Monday – including a barnstorming meeting with UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Eurosceptic backbencher Bill Cash MP. It was away from that drama that a more nuanced analysis of the UK’s relationship with the EU was being made.

Steve Elliot of the Chemicals Industry Association was clear from the start that the UK gains from the EU, highlighting the fact that it’s the source of around 10% of the UK’s science funding. It was also apparent that the industry believes leaving the EU would not fundamentally change many of the regulations they need to adhere to. This point was reinforced by Malcolm Harbour MEP, who was unequivocal that even if the UK left the EU it would have no choice but to keep to the rules of the single market – as compliance is the only way for the industry to continue to have access to the European market.

Yet, although there was broad agreement that, as the EU isn’t going away, the UK needs to remain involved, there were concerns from the industry and MEPs that the industry has to become more proactive in its engagement with the EU.

At the heart of this discussion was the reality that the chemicals sector will always attract the attention of environmentalists, and that the EU takes the threat posed by climate change to Europe’s future seriously and will continue to legislate where it feels action is required.

In this context the case for proactive industry leadership – not just through the excellent lead of the CIA but from sister organisations and businesses across Europe, and including through SMART networks – could not be more pressing. Without it, as the CIA’s Steve Elliot pointed out, the industry ends up on the defensive with regulations like REACH, when it should be proposing its own solutions. This is especially true because the chemicals industry itself recognises the importance of the environment and understands its responsibility to protect it.

The trick is to engage early with environmentalists, EU officials and politicians. Building a strong dialogue with them – a point made forcefully by Malcolm Harbour, who said more than once that industry too often comes to him with impact assessments after MEPs have met to decide strategy and response.

Finally, there’s also a larger role for the industry to play in promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) as a way of thinking about public policy, something that again highlights the need for a far more active dialogue between government and industry.

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