House of Commons looks set to oppose the deal.
The EU27 member states signed off the divorce deal between the UK and the EU yesterday, backing both the withdrawal agreement and political declaration, as Brexit moves into a critical stage.
It’s a significant move forward in the process and has been welcomed by the UK pharma sector, with the chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Mike Thompson saying that terms “mean that medicines will continue to reach the patients who need them when the UK leaves the EU in March.”
It’s also abundantly clear, however, that the biggest challenge is still to come. The UK government is launching a desperate bid to win support for the 585-page withdrawal agreement and 26-page declaration on the future relationship between the UK and EU before the package goes before Parliament in two weeks’ time.
With time fast running out, hard-line Conservative Brexiteers are adamant that the deal represents a surrendering of sovereignty. They say this makes it impossible to follow through on the Leave campaign’s pledges to forge new trade deals, and could leave the UK permanently lodged in a ‘backstop’ customs arrangement intended to avoid checks at the Northern Ireland border with the Republic.
Added to that, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have so far all said they cannot support the deal and look set to vote it down.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for a general election, the Liberal Democrats are pushing for a new referendum on Brexit as a whole, and the DUP says it cannot tolerate the Irish border proposals that it says threaten the integrity of the union.
Critics insist changes can still be made – although that has been fiercely rejected by EU president Jean-Claude Juncker who says it is the best deal possible and will not be re-negotiated – with Cabinet members Michael Gove and Amber Rudd suggesting that a Norway-flavoured European Free Trade Association (EFTA) approach should be considered if there is an impasse in Parliament.
Prime Minister Theresa May is due to address the Commons later today and will tell MPs that if they reject “the best deal available” it would “open the door to yet more division and more uncertainly, with all the risks that will entail.”
Industry is desperate for an injection of certainty after more than two years in limbo, but Mike Thompson reiterated a position, voiced earlier by the ABPI, that regulatory co-operation must continue after the withdrawal period comes to an end.
While the deal on the table “includes the ‘possibility of co-operation’ between the regulators, the MHRA and the EMA…we urge politicians to move swiftly to confirm the closest co-operation in regulation and scientific research which will maximise Europe’s ability to compete globally.”
“Without this, the US and China will continue to attract the major share of new life sciences investment,” he warned.
As predictions that MPs will vote down the deal are rife, the pharma sector must continue with its planning for a possible no deal Brexit. Mike Thompson says the sector (especially the largest firms) have already spent tens of millions to safeguard the medicines supply chain, including stockpiling. However there remain significant concerns about the readiness of the sector should the UK crash out without a deal; practical issues such as a shortage of warehouse space and the enormity of the logistical challenge are major obstacles, with just four months until Brexit day, 29 March 2019.
Many UK parliamentarians are calling for the EU to extend the deadline should no deal be agreed by this date, however as these are uncharted political waters, no-one can be sure of how events will unfold over the next few months.