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Brexit ‘breakthrough’ raises hope — and questions

Giving EU nationals the right to remain in the UK will boost confidence, say observers.
Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, left, and Jean-Claude Juncker, right

The rights of European Union scientists in the UK formed part of a statement on Brexit agreed by UK prime minister Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.Credit: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg/Getty

British science is expected to benefit from a deal that would allow EU nationals to remain in the country once it leaves the union in March 2019.

The proposals were contained in a joint statement presented on 8 December by the UK prime minister Theresa May and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The document contains specific pledges that a final agreement will allow EU nationals now living in the UK, and their families, to apply to stay after Brexit, with minimal paperwork. The same deal is offered for UK nationals living in the other 27 EU countries. The provision extends to those who enter or leave Britain before Brexit takes place in 15 months’ time.

Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences in London, said in a statement that he was “delighted” by the reassurance given to EU nationals in the United Kingdom. “This declaration provides much-needed assurance, allowing these people to make plans for their future with confidence.” Lechler’s wife, Giovanna Lombardi, is one of those who will benefit: she is an international scientist who hails from Italy and works as an immunologist at King’s College London.

The pledges are similar to previous assurances made by Theresa May’s government, says Sarah Main, executive director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. But she told Nature that the statement might help to reassure people about their post-Brexit future. “My perception has been that scientists have been extremely anxious.”

However, Kieron Flanagan, a science and technology policy expert at the University of Manchester, says that the document might not sufficiently soothe such anxieties. “Non-UK EU nationals must feel battered and bruised by the uncertainty of the process,” he says. “And I’m not sure how much this will do to reassure those who might be thinking twice about coming to the UK in the near future.”

Ian Chapman, chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, says: “I think it looks very positive.” He says that the statement signals Britain’s “intent to continue strong collaboration on science”.

The document states that both sides have agreed principles for handling the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community, or Euratom. Britain will become responsible for international nuclear safeguards in its own territory, currently overseen by Euratom, and these safeguards will be equivalent to the existing regime.

But the declaration is silent on Britain's future role in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest fusion experiment, which is being built in southern France, and which the UK is part of through its membership of the EU. The document also leaves uncertain the future of the Joint European Torus (JET), a nuclear-fusion facility in Culham, UK, that is largely funded by the EU.

Yet fusion researchers may be encouraged by an £86-million (US$115-million) commitment to fusion research, which the UK government announced on 7 December, says Chapman. JET’s host laboratory, the UK Atomic Energy Agency’s Culham Science Centre, will host the programme, which is largely intended to provide facilities for UK companies to secure ITER contracts. “It is a clear demonstration of the commitment of the UK government for fusion and finding a way to continue to participate in ITER,” says Chapman.

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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 11 December 2017: This story has been updated with additional information about reactions to the agreement.