Brexit and EU Agencies

Theresa May’s statement that we won’t be trying to stay in bits of the EU means that, in principle, we shall also be leaving more than 40 EU agencies (including some located in Britain) which perform tasks on behalf of all member states, including us, over a wide range of policy areas.

They handle cross-border problems, cut costs by pooling resources, and have often become vital to effective cooperation in the field they cover.

Some oversee cross-border transport, such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

Some test and establish joint safety standards for products, such as the Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the Medicines Agency (EMA), which is UK based.

Some deal with areas where national boundaries are not respected, either by the natural world, such as the Environment Agency (EEA) and the Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA), or by criminals (EUROPOL) or by flows of capital, such as the European Banking Authority (EBA).

Some also have responsibilities for the application of standards set at UN level (in fields such as food, transport, fishing and intellectual property), where doing so jointly in Europe cuts costs and increases efficiency.

What are the options open to the UK?

  • Do we set up our own agencies in each of these fields, at great expense, duplicating the work previously done jointly? And how would that work anyway for ones dealing with cross-border problems?
  • Or do we avoid that expense and simply continue to follow the recommendations and decisions of these agencies, even if we are no longer part of them and don’t have a say in their management?
  • Or do we ask to remain members of them, even though we are leaving the EU, if the others will let us?

Before we start on the Brexit negotiations, we need to decide, for each one of them, what we want to secure. The Wall St Journal put it this way (Dec 2016):

“If the UK were to cease to be a member of these regulatory bodies, then the authorizations they provide would lapse, raising questions about the ability of UK firms to continue trading. If the UK quit the European Air Safety Association, for instance, who would certify that UK aircraft were safe to fly? Excluded from the European Medicines Agency, who would provide the certification to let British-manufactured drugs be traded? Similar concerns apply across multiple industries, including food and drink, chemicals, transport and cross-border data flows.

To walk away from the EU without a deal, the UK would need to have replicated all these regulatory functions at the national level and have secured the bilateral recognition for its new agencies from all its trading partners. That is a vast and expensive bureaucratic undertaking—and not one that any government would contemplate unless it was certain it was heading for the hardest of Brexits. Ministers acknowledge that they are still far from fully understanding the scale of the challenge, raising doubts about whether it would be technically possible to put everything in place before the U.K. dropped out of the EU in March 2019”

Let us look at a selection of ten main agencies to see what is at stake:

  1. European Aviation Safety Agency
  • Without a replacement agreement, planes could not legally leave UK air space to cross Europe or even the Atlantic. Leaving the EU means stepping out of its “single sky” agreement that ensures any certified airline headquartered in the Union is free to fly between airports in the bloc without restriction.
  • It would also mean leaving bilateral deals thrashed out between the EU and third countries – such as the EU-US Open Skies agreement – which guarantee landing rights.
  • It is the certification authority for aerospace equipment and products of European design and manufacture, for example it certified the Airbus A380 and deemed it airworthy.  This agency is also responsible for that aircraft types continuing airworthiness.  That goes for Rolls Royce engines too.  The international agreements that exist between EASA and aviation authorities worldwide, like the US FAA avoid duplication of activity and share sensitive safety data.
  • Forging bilateral aviation agreements to replace all this, whether with the EU or third countries, would be extremely complex and could take years, with little likelihood of such advantageous terms as we have now
  • And this is important: Britain currently has the largest aviation network in Europe and the third largest in the world – more than 250 million passengers fly to over 370 destinations from the UK annually
  1. European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)
  • Our world-level international reporting and monitoring obligations on maritime safety are currently taken care of through EMSA and shared EU rules on seafarer working conditions.
  • This is how we maintain Britain’s status as a ‘quality flag state’ under international law. If we lose this, we don’t lose our obligations, but we do lose our ability to meet them quickly and easily.
  • The complexities are endless, and doing this separately as Britain would put huge strain on the civil service (on top of all the Brexit negotiations), would take many years to negotiate, and would cost more.
  1. European Chemicals Agency
  • The Chemicals industry is vital for Britain. It is our biggest manufacturing exporter and employs over 500,000 people.
  • The expensive but vital process of testing, evaluating and authorizing chemicals as safe for use is carried out jointly through the European Chemicals Agency, to save money and avoid duplication
  • If we leave it, we would need to set up our own agency, agree equivalency rules and mutual recognition as well as procedures to resolve differences.
  • Coordinates some 40,000 cross border police investigations each year
  • Around 3,000 British investigations a year rely on input from Europol
  • Covers terrorism, cybercrime, irregular migration, human trafficking, drug smuggling, cigarette smuggling, mobile organised crime groups, intellectual property crime, VAT fraud and money laundering
  1. The European Investment Bank
  • Britain’s share of the capital of the EIB is nearly €40bn. If we leave it, we shall have to unravel assets and liabilities, and lose the ability to source it for relatively cheap loans
  • It is is the world’s largest international public lending institution and an important source of finance for investment, including in the UK, where it invested invested €29 billion just between 2011-2015.
  1. The European Medicines Agency
  • This employs over 900 highly specialised staff, based in Canary Wharf. If we leave it, these would go to another European country.
  • Furthermore, more than a third of their work is outsourced to the UK’s regulator, the MHRA, which generates one third of MHRA’s income from this business. This would be lost if the EMA moved elsewhere
  • Again, avoiding duplication of effort is a major cost saver for all Member States in this high-cost field
  • And medicines certified by this joint agency can circulate without further ado across the whole EU single market
  1. European Banking Authority
  • This employs 160 people, in London. Several European countries are already bidding for it.
  • It tests the resilience for banks across Europe
  • It embellishes London’s status as Europe’s leading financial centre, a status under threat from Brexit
  1. European Defence Agency
  • Coordinates joint procurement of military assets to decrease costs for countries and increase harmonisation of operational needs
  • Develops cooperation on cyber-defence
  1. European Environment Agency
  • Coordinates efforts to protect the environment and secure sustainable development in Europe by providing decision makers with information to shape, implement and assess environmental policies.
  • Key body for assembling statistics, evaluating impacts and conducting cost-benefit analysis.
  1. European Food Safety Authority
  • Set up after series of food crises in late 1990s
  • Delivers scientific advice on issues, including salmonella, food additives, GMOs, pesticides and animal health issues, assessing risks related to food and food safety
  • Europe has some of the highest food standards in the world thanks to this agency

There are many more agencies than just these ten examples (see list below), including the special case of EURATOM, which I have written about here.

The government has admitted that it simply can’t do some of these things on its own. While we are still part of the EU, Theresa May has chosen to opt into the new Europol rules and the Unified Patent Court Agreement, as participation is clearly to the UK’s advantage.

However, once we leave, there is no guarantee that we will still be able to participate on any terms in any of the agencies, let alone terms as good as they are currently, with our ability to have a input into them.

In addition, The headquarters of two of the agencies based in Britain would normally have to be relocated into EU countries, impacting on jobs, draining specialist skills and reducing the UK’s international standing. Does the government even intend to try to negotiate a deal whereby they stay in Britain?

Concluding remarks

At worst, leaving and doing all these things separately will incur massive economic and bureaucratic costs – the kind of costs we’ve spent the last fifty years gradually eliminating — at the same time as crippling our effectiveness both domestically and on the world stage. At best, we will have to find new and potentially complex ways to continue the cooperation which, inside the EU, has been straightforward.

It’s all too easy, as Britain is now discovering, to decide one day to quit the EU. But managing the fallout from that decision is a bureaucratic and costly nightmare.

Britain in Europe has led the world in so many areas. It seems likely that only through dismantling that leadership will we realise quite how good we’ve had it up until now. When reality hits home, it will hardly be surprising if we see people asking for a rethink of the Brexit decision.


Some other EU agencies:

EU Plant Variety Office

An intellectual property system for plant varieties, enabling breeders to collect royalties, thereby recovering investment in research and development. Many of these increase yields from crops, creating additional farm income and jobs. They also reduce use of pesticides and fossil fuels in agriculture, contributing reduction of CO2 emissions and water consumption.

European Union’s Judicial Cooperation Unit

Coordinates European cooperation in cross border crime and terrorism judicial investigations and prosecutions. Helps administration of Mutual Legal Assistance, European Arrest Warrant and European Investigation Orders.

Fusion for Energy

Provides Europe’s contribution to ITER, the world’s largest scientific collaboration, for fusion as a viable source of energy (involving the EU, USA, Japan, China, India, Russia and South Korea).

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking

Aims to develop clean, efficient, and affordable solutions that demonstrate the potential of hydrogen as an energy carrier in order to reduce emissions and enhance energy security.

European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency

Supports navigation satellite investment. This has become increasingly important as transport, logistics, energy and other fields rely on global navigation satellite systems. It notably set up the Galileo GPS (global positioning) service and the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service, which aims to improve accuracy of GPS.

European Union Intellectual Property Office

Contributes to protecting intellectual property rights, managing the EU Trademark and Registered Community Design

European Union Institute for Security Studies

Contributes to strategic thinking regarding the Foreign and Security Policy. Acts as an interface between experts and decision-makers

Agency for the operational management of large-scale IT systems in the area of freedom, security and justice

Facilitates information exchange among national police, border control, migration, asylum, customs and judicial authorities. It enables law enforcement authorities to have integrated systems.

European Fisheries Control Agency

Contributes to maintaining marine biological resources through research, analysing technical measures and aggregating data across borders

European Institute for Gender Equality

Analyses and disseminates data on discrimination against women, analyses measures taken in different countries and looks at how to incorporate gender considerations into policies and the policy making process

European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training

Supports Member Countries in delivering world-class vocational education and training, to provide skills and qualifications relevant for the labour market and accessibility to lifelong learning

Clean Sky 2 JU

Aims to reduce environmental impact of air transport sector, creating resource-efficient transport. Collaboration of major aeronautical manufacturers as well as small and medium-sized enterprises. A Technology Evaluator that assesses the environmental and societal impact of the technologies.

European Asylum Support Office

Provides emergency support to EU+ countries whose asylum systems are under pressure. Supports EU countries in reaching their international obligations.

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control

Identifies threats to public health from communicable diseases. Ensures all EU citizens have same safeguards against infectious diseases

European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority

Established in aftermath of financial crash in 2007-8. Ensures transparency of markets and financial products and protect consumers such as policyholders and pension scheme members.

European Institute of Innovation and Technology

Promotes geographical and cross-sectoral collaboration between innovators across Europe. Increase Europe’s competitiveness by nurturing environment and turning into marketable products and services. Develops entrepreneurship and innovation skills.

European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction

A hub on drug-related information. Provides independent evidence and information to enable policy makers to understand drug issues and take action, and focused analysis on specific topics.

European Union Agency for Network and Information Security

Supports IT network security through recommendations to stakeholders. In achieving a European Digital Single Market with high level of security, has the potential to create thousands of jobs.

European Union Agency for Railways

Works on removal of administrative barriers to cross-border rail and tendering. Promotes common European safety specifications and a single European train communication system.

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

Coordinates European cooperation on occupational safety.

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions

Coordinates European cooperation on living and working conditions.

European Union Satellite Centre

In the context of Foreign and Security Policy, this supports political, diplomatic and operational actions to give early warnings of potential crises in order for countries to take diplomatic, economic or humanitarian decisions in a timely manner.

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights

Issues reports and opinions and raises awareness on fundamental rights issues. Carries out transnational research to provide evidence-based expertise.


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