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UK chemicals industry sees progress, but Brexit 'clock ticking furiously'

People – Steve Elliott

With less than a year to go until the UK is expected to leave the EU, the British chemicals sector is now "perhaps at its highest level of visibility and political resonance" for at least a decade, Chemical Industries Association head Steve Elliott has said.

Speaking at Chemical Watch’s second conference on Brexit this week, Mr Elliott [pictured] said this is clear from recent references to chemicals made by prime minister Theresa May, as well as high level meetings and articles in prominent media outlets.

And, he added, "a partly formal, partly informal alliance" between government, industry, parliamentarians, trade unions and NGOs has developed and is "perhaps giving us our best political shot of delivering" a desired Brexit outcome. This would include, for example, staying in REACH, guaranteeing regulatory continuity and continued engagement in Echa, he said.

Speaking to a packed audience in London, Mr Elliott said that, if asked, the business community would say things feel slightly better at the moment because it felt like some political progress had been made recently.

"That said," he added, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." And this all means that a ‘hard’ Brexit is still a possibility and the clock is "ticking furiously".

Mr Elliott made two pleas on practicalities going forward:

  • where possible for companies to identify and submit examples of potential supply chain disruptions – because of adverse tariffs, customs delays, regulatory inconsistency, for instance – that might impact products "that matter to the person in the street"; and
  • to ensure the government has access to "the expertise that matters".

‘Climbdown’

Nigel Haigh, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, told the conference he believes the UK chemicals industry is "quite good" at speaking to government, but he urged stakeholders to speak up if they want the government to continue to be present at European Council meetings and in Echa committees.

He added that UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove "used to say the UK could regulate chemicals better than the EU", but has since backed the idea of associate membership of Echa. "This is a very big climbdown," Mr Haigh said, "and I think we can expect some more."

Meanwhile, in another of the event’s keynote speeches, Lord Whitty, a member of the UK’s House of Lords and Parliament’s EU internal market sub-committee, said industry should support the prime minister’s intention for Britain to have associate membership of Echa.

"Mrs May has belatedly alighted on the most effective option – continued membership of Echa, and continued participation of REACH," he said. "You as an industry should pursue it."

EU awareness

Delegates heard that some of the EU’s remaining 27 member states have perhaps yet to fully grasp the impact Brexit could have on them and their chemicals industry.

While UK industry is aware of the potential negative consequences of Britain being out of the single market, REACH and Echa, Brexit will cause "the same problems" in the EU, Cefic’s REACH director Erwin Annys said.

However, he added, although the outcome of negotiations is unknown, he could not believe that the UK or other member states would be "willing to kill industry" so "at some point we will sit down together."

There is a growing realisation among some EU countries, Mr Annys said, that "Brexit may be a potential problem for them."

And Michael Warhurst, executive director of NGO CHEM Trust, said the remaining 27 countries might come to recognise the benefits to the EU of allowing the UK to stay in REACH.

There were, he said, some arguments for allowing the UK to ‘cherry pick’ REACH. The benefits could help:

  • prevent transboundary pollution from potential deregulation;
  • avoid the UK competing with the European chemicals industry by potentially having "a lower level of protection";
  • overcome the problem of a British industry that is potentially not legally bound to the authorisation process; and
  • spread the global power of REACH: "Across the world, except America, everyone is moving in a REACH-type direction and that is likely to continue."

This story has been amended to clarify Mr Elliott's pleas on practicalities. 

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