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Reassurance of sorts

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A STATEMENT from the Government this week indicating that the Treasury intends to replace EU funding for scientists, farmers and others as Britain prepares to leave the EU goes some way to alleviating concerns that have been raised since the referendum in June but, as with so much else regarding Brexit, a great deal of uncertainty remains.

In a news story posted on its website on August 13, couched in the positive terms that one has come to expect from government departments these days, the Government announced that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, had guaranteed EU funding beyond the date that the UK leaves the EU. As a result, British businesses and universities would ‘have certainty over future funding’ and should continue to bid for competitive EU funds while Britain remains an EU member. The news story explained that thousands of British organisations would receive guarantees over EU funding as a result of the move, and that key projects supporting economic development across the UK would be ‘given the green light’.

Among the assurances given by the Treasury were that all structural and investment fund projects, including agri-environment schemes, signed before the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, would be fully funded, even when these projects continue beyond Britain's departure from the EU. The Treasury would also put in place arrangements for assessing whether to guarantee funding for specific structural and investment fund projects that might be signed after the Autumn Statement but while Britain remained an EU member. In cases where organisations bid directly to the European Commission on a competitive basis for EU funding for projects while Britain is still a member – for example, universities participating in Horizon 2020, the EU's e80 billion research and innovation programme – the Treasury would underwrite the payment of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK's departure.

In what was described as ‘a new boost’ to the UK's agricultural sector, Mr Hammond also guaranteed that the current level of agricultural funding under Pillar 1 of the Common Agricultural Policy will be upheld until 2020, as part of the transition to new domestic arrangements.

The Government's announcement provides a degree of reassurance, and perhaps as much as might realistically be expected at this stage, but, like most government announcements following the referendum result, says little more than that existing commitments will be fulfilled and that there won't be any immediate changes up to the point Britain leaves. What happens after that is still uncharted territory. This kind of uncertainty also remains with regard to the position of EU citizens working in the UK and, as the BVA has highlighted, this issue needs urgently to be resolved (VR, July 9, 2016, vol 179, p 29; August 13, 2016, vol 179, p 160).

The commitment to continue to fund existing EU-funded research projects after Britain leaves the EU is important and seeks to address concerns among scientists that uncertainties about future funding could affect their ability to participate effectively in competition for collaborative EU research grants, and that funding for existing projects might be removed. Although Britain is still a member of the EU, there have already been reports of British researchers being dropped from EU research groups making grant applications, because of doubts about what the future might hold. The Chancellor's announcement has been welcomed by scientists but whether it has the desired effect remains to be seen. The campaign group Scientists for EU, which argues that Britain should remain in the EU, described it as ‘a confirmation of the bare essentials, but nothing more’.

The environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, said that the Treasury's statement was ‘excellent news’ for farmers and the environment, providing ‘crucial certainty and continuity to our rural communities while we develop a new approach to supporting agriculture and protecting our precious countryside’. For its part, the National Farmers' Union said the statement was ‘positive’, giving farmers ‘much needed certainty in the short-term’. Meanwhile, in what it described as its biggest consultation in a generation, the NFU launched a survey this week on what Britain's agricultural policy should be after Brexit. Noting that the vote to leave the EU means that ‘food security must drive a new, bold ambition for UK farmers and growers’, the NFU is seeking views from its members on the future of the industry, and what kind of support mechanisms should be available.1 Safeguarding animal health and welfare must undoubtedly form part of any future farming policy, and this is an area where the veterinary profession might usefully contribute to the debate.

For all the uncertainties and anxieties, one thing that can be said about the referendum result is that it does seem to have got people thinking about what they want for the future, and how their ambitions might be achieved, albeit somewhat belatedly. Inevitably, views will differ, and all sorts of competing interests will be involved. This makes it all the more important that the veterinary profession works together in determining its own priorities (VR, July 16, 2016, vol 179, p 56).

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