What could an EU Brexit mean for British minerals businesses?

By IM Staff
Published: Thursday, 25 February 2016

The prospect of the UK’s departure from the European Union following a referendum on its membership, due to be held in June, has raised concerns about British companies’ access to data and funding for future mineral and mining research projects.

By Andrew Burnyeat

Fears have emerged that UK minerals companies could be left behind in terms of R&D funding if Britain leaves the EU, following the in-out referendum to be held over the country’s membership of the union on 23 June this year.

Brexit_D Smith, via Flickr 
If the UK leaves the EU, the country may not be entitled to access funding and data earmarked for European mineral projects, experts have warned (source: D Smith, via Flickr).

Industrial minerals experts and industry chiefs have been examining the consequences of a "Brexit", focusing particularly on the potential impact UK isolation would have upon financing research into new exploration and extraction technologies and mineral products.

Only last week, details emerged of a €5.4m ($5.9m*) project led by a team from the Exeter University, aimed at discovering deposits of so-called critical minerals all over Europe.

The money, from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, will fund the development of state-of-the-art techniques to uncover previously-unknown resources of minerals including rare earths, niobium, fluorspar and graphite, deemed essential to the manufacture of many high-tech products.

According to the European Commission, less than 3% of minerals designated as critical to the EU economy, are mined within the union at present, however there are believed to be vast, undiscovered deposits of these resources lying undiscovered within EU borders.

 

Professor Frances Wall, of the Camborne School of Mines, which is part of Exeter University, who is leading the project declined to comment specifically on the impact of a Brexit on the UK mineral industry’s relationship with the rest of Europe, but acknowledged that "the EU is a major funder of R&D activity in this sector."

It is unclear what would happen to Britain’s input into the project – or EU funding of Professor Wall’s work – should the UK vote to leave on 23 June.

"One problem, of course, is that nobody really knows what might happen if we vote to leave. The common market has been on the go for so long," Robert Durward, director of the British Aggregates Association, told IM.

Academic opinion is divided on whether Britain would be able to benefit from funding – and whether the EU would be able to continue to benefit from British expertise, such as that offered by Professor Wall and her team at Camborne – in the event of a Brexit.

Lesley Wilson, secretary-general of the European University Association, in Brussels, said that "Europe would suffer and the UK would suffer".

A spokesperson for the UK pro-Brexit campaign, Leave.eu, suggested that cash which the UK would no longer have to pay to Europe, if it left, could be diverted to British research. However, studies funded by Britain alone may have restricted access to co-operation, data and actual land of EU countries to conduct mineral research and mining activity, if it was no longer part of the union.

The UK has a long history of co-operation and involvement with significant EU-funded projects, which have discovered and developed mineral deposits – especially in Africa.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member, previously paid to be part of EU minerals research projects, but access was later withdrawn after the Alpine country passed laws in 2014 that restricted immigration from the rest of the union.

Another aspect of a Brexit would be the question of what regulations the UK government would apply to the industry to replace the current EU panoply of standards and rules.

"One thing that is for sure is that, even if we do leave, it will probably take five years to unwind all the common legislation that has built up over the years,"  said Durward.

Remaining inside the EU, would, according to some, strengthen calls for a reduction in red tape when applying for research grants, for example. A commitment to cutting bureaucracy was a key part of the commitment won by UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, in negotiating a revised deal for UK membership of the EU, the substance of which Britons will effectively voting on in June.

 

*Conversion made February 2016

 

 

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