What exactly are these pills?


In The Third Man, the hero, a guileless American, arrives in post-war Vienna to meet his friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job. He is told, first, that Lime is dead, and then, by a British military officer, that he was a criminal, a racketeer. Go home, says the officer.

The American doesn’t. He is convinced his friend was innocent, and stays in Vienna to clear his name. But Lime is still alive, and the American, at the end of the film, joins the chase and shoots him dead.

Something very serious is needed to account for this reversal, and something very serious is revealed. Harry Lime was not just a racketeer. He sold adulterated penicillin on the black market and children, as a result, suffered terrible brain damage. We are almost shown them, but not quite (this film was made in 1949): the camera tracks down the hospital ward and shows us the reactions of the other characters. We imagine. It is enough.

The cleverness of this element of the plot is how plausible it is made by the context. A black market is one of the products of civil chaos, and civil chaos is a product of war. In such an environment, everything becomes corrupted, starting with commerce and ending with conscience – or the other way round. And because it is a commercial transaction, the fact that it is evil is masked.   Commerce is just commerce, isn’t it? Caveat emptor.

Civil chaos also results from misrule. In Haiti, which has been misruled, often grossly, for most of two centuries, some cough medicine which did not do what it said on the label went on sale a few years ago in the poor districts of Port-au-Prince, and killed some of the children who took it. It wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened. Respiratory infections, along with many other ailments, are endemic in the slums; poverty is institutionalised by inequality of staggering proportions; with inequality comes contempt for the poor. The rich five per cent buy their drugs in Miami. Visiting Haiti, I was advised to look carefully at any medicinal products I bought.

We are accustomed, in this part of the world, to being able to trust a pharmaceutical product. It may not do all it’s claimed to do, but at least we can be sure that it is what it says it is. We may not like animal testing, but at least we know there has been testing, and some identifiable regulatory body has overseen it. We can assume, on the whole, that we – or the NHS – are not being monstrously overcharged for drugs we need, and that we will have access to them within a reasonable time of their reaching the market.

For ensuring the smooth running of this system we have been largely indebted, since 1995, to the European Medicines Agency (formerly the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medical Products). At its offices on Canary Wharf, this decentralised EU agency evaluates and regulates the safety of medical products across the EU, ensures universality of standards and that medicines are not duplicated (thus saving a lot of money). The British regulator, the Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), is fully integrated into it. Thanks to the efficiency of the EMA’s single market, patients in Europe are able to access new treatments and medications roughly six months to a year sooner than those in Canada and Australia.

John Major lobbied hard for the EMA to come to London, and since then it has played an important role in Britain’s participation in Europe-wide medical projects. It has been central to the UK’s reputation in scientific development. The wish to be physically close to the regulator has drawn research organisations and drugs manufacturing companies to settle in London. The EMA employs about 900 people, and receives a constant flow of professional visitors who account for 30,000 hotel bookings per year. It is one of the institutions that make London a world city.

And now it’s going, another victim of Brexit. As an EU agency, it has to be located in an EU member state. A decision as to which country will host it is expected in October. Member states have until the end of July to submit their bids. One of the main criteria is good transport links. The competition is keen. Ireland is one of the favourites.

If there is a perfect illustration of the own goal that is Brexit, the departure of the EMA is it. It is not simply that the UK will lose the revenue and prestige that is involved in hosting this important agency; it is also that, because it is subject to the European Court of Justice, British health services and manufacturers will lose access to it and the market it regulates. That market accounts for a quarter of all global pharmaceutical sales, and it is idle to pretend that British pharmaceutical companies will be not be seriously affected by being excluded from it.

The most important consideration, however, is the effect on the NHS, patient health and public safety. On 4 July the Government addressed this. It issued a statement of its desire to retain “a close working partnership” in respect of medicines regulation after Britain leaves the EU. It laid out three principles: that patients should not be disadvantaged, that innovators should be able to access the UK market as quickly and simply as possible, and that Britain would “continue to play a leading role in both Europe and the world in promoting public health” (MHRA website).

Informed readers of this announcement were not impressed. Perhaps they had noticed the lack of detail, a persistent feature of Government communications.   A letter of 12 July (www.abpi.org.uk/barner-davis-joint-association-pharma-letter), addressed to Michel Barnier and David Davis by representatives of the European and British pharmaceutical and life science industry, stressed the high degree of integration of the industry across Europe and the “sophisticated system of legal and regulatory arrangements between EU institutions, Member States and national competent authorities.”

“It is important,” the letter continued, “that there is as much certainty as possible, as early as possible, to enable the pharmaceutical and life science industry to transition smoothly into the new framework, ensuring there is no disruption to patient access to medicines.”

In a later paragraph it was more explicit: “In the case of an unorderly withdrawal there is a risk that all goods due to be moved between the UK and EU could be held either at border checks, in warehouses or manufacturing and/or subject to extensive retesting requirements… This would lead to a severe disruption of most companies’ supply chains, which would lead to potential supply disruptions of life-saving medicines.” (My italics.)

The authors of the letter pleaded for more time to prepare for the safe disentangling of the industry’s “sophisticated system of arrangements”. They fear they won’t get it, and with reason. The hard-line Brexiteers are suspicious of a transition period, and Theresa May will not allow a co-operation agreement that is subject to the loathed ECJ. And if the talks collapse because David Davis and his team are too dogmatic, unprepared or concerned with what is going on behind their backs in Westminster to carry them through successfully, then all bets are off.

It would be comforting to think that behind the scenes the Government is beavering away at making a success of our departure from the EMA, but the language it has employed in its statement is the same as the language it uses to talk about any aspect of Brexit – vague, bland, empty. It has talked of a “close working partnership” with the EU in relation to the Irish border, security and the European Arrest Warrant, Euratom, the single market… it knows only one note and untiringly sings it.

It appears ignorant of science and to regard it as secondary. In February, MPs from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called on David Davis’s Department for Exiting the European Union to hire a chief scientific adviser as a matter of urgency. The Department has still not done so. “The scientific community in the UK is frankly very worried about Brexit,” said Andrew Steele, chairman of the Science is Vital campaign group this week.

David Davis was photographed sitting at a table innocent, on his side, of any scrap of paper, at the negotiations on Monday. Michel Barnier, who had a sheaf of them, is acutely aware of the clock ticking: Davis seems not to know there’s a clock. He left the talks within an hour to return to London. If he is aware of the urgent need to make plans so that patients can get the right medicines, and don’t resort to unlicensed products because they’re all that’s available, he has given no indication of it.

We’re still a long way from Haiti. But the signs are ominous. Dereliction of duty in high office. Incompetence. Cynicism and a culture of lies. Indifference to poverty. The abomination of Grenfell Tower.

The road down which the signs point goes straight to Port-au-Prince.


Rope of sand


An aeroplane is a beautiful thing, I’ve always thought. The idea so simple, so bold. The design pared down to necessity. Fuselage, wings, tailplane, fin. Even the tailplane can be dispensed with; so, almost, can the fuselage. Then the aircraft is a flying triangle with a cabin thumb-pressed into its leading edge. You can’t do without the wing. If it doesn’t have wings, it isn’t an aeroplane.

Michel Barnier has been talking about Airbus.

At Broughton, Flintshire, the Airbus factory employs around 5,000 workers. They make the wings for Airbus aircraft including the A380, the largest passenger aircraft. Other factories in Spain, France and Germany are involved in making components, processing or assembly. In the course of manufacture the wings for the A380 cross national frontiers several times before ending up in Toulouse, where they are installed in the airframe. It’s a perfect example of what the single market makes possible.

Once the UK leaves the EU, said M. Barnier, businesses like Airbus which rely on integration with continental Europe will face new constraints as they move parts and staff between centres of production. He added a warning about red tape over VAT and “very cumbersome” customs procedures. “Only a combination of the customs union and the rules of the single market make it possible to trade freely without friction between our countries,” he said.

He was speaking to a committee in Brussels, but he was addressing the British Government. He said he feared that the truth had still not sunk in in London. He had reason to think so. Theresa May, although all around her were in disarray and her Chancellor was in open revolt, was continuing to proclaim that the UK would leave the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ, while talking about trade “as frictionless as possible” and an Irish border visible only to the wee folk.

“As Brexit approaches,” says a paper by Thomas Sampson, Assistant Professor of Economics at the LSE  (‘The referendum one year on: trade and the single market,’ published by the website The UK in a Changing Europe), “the UK is facing more challenges than opportunities. From an economic perspective, the question is not whether Brexit will harm living standards, but how large the cost will be. Following the general election, the Government needs to ask how much voters are willing to pay to assert their sense of national identity.”

Some hope. The Government’s survival depends on not asking that question.

The Government is asleep and dreaming. In the dream, it is trying to perform one of those impossible tasks set for human beings by malicious spirits, like emptying a lake with a thimble. It needs to reconcile two irreconcilable things. It cannot do it, but it cannot wake up, either. If it woke up, it would have to relinquish the idea that is the very foundation of Brexit. Sovereignty.

It’s a fine word. Weighty, dignified, with the patina of ages on it and a thrilling flash of gold. Try to grasp it, and it’s as slippery as an eel. What does it mean?

“The authority of a state to govern itself,” says my Concise Oxford Dictionary (2006). The UK in a Changing Europe borrows this definition, but adds, “… and determine its own laws and policies.” This last phrase is superfluous, because if a state has authority to govern itself it has authority to determine its own laws and policies. That phrase has been added in the light of our relations with the EU.

My old Shorter Oxford (reprinted in 1970 from the edition of 1944) is surprising. It says “Supremacy in respect of power, domination or rank; supreme dominion, authority or rule.” It is a more pragmatic definition; it has a certain bleakness. It contains no reference to the right  to rule.  I thought about 1944: a year of blood and iron, and not much political squeamishness. Power is basically what sovereignty is about: the word comes through Middle English and Old French from Latin super, meaning “above.” Its use will have changed as the world changed, from the Middle Ages onward.

“Authority… to determine… laws and policies” is centrally what’s at stake in the Brexit argument. Leave voters say with passion that Britain must “take back control”: that control of our laws and our borders and our fishing rights and just about anything you care to name was lost when we became part of the EU. They are partly right, although they are also deluded. They are right that something was lost. They are deluded in that they think it could have been held on to. They think there is such a thing as untrammelled sovereignty. So does a two-year-old, but in most cases the belief does not survive because, if it did, the individual who held it would not.

The same is true of the state. Any state is bound by treaties: trade agreements, alliances, pacts of defence or aggression, agreements about the shared use of rivers and airspace and the correct behaviour of ships at sea. Each one of these limits its sovereignty. Nobody makes a fuss about this. It is understood: treaties are made because they benefit both parties. Except in the case of the EU, where, for some reason deep in the British psyche, it is not understood at all.

The Brexit press howls about “Brussels telling us what to do!” as if Belgians were landing on the beaches and goose-stepping to the town hall. What they are complaining about, usually, is the mass of regulations, governing trade and commerce but also workers’ rights, women’s rights, the treatment of animals and much more, that issue from the EU treaties. Yes, there is a lot of it. There has to be: it is an attempt to create uniformity of standards, including safety standards, across 28 member countries so that trade, travel, study and other civilised activities can be carried out with equal facility, and equal protection under the law, in all of them. That is a staggering, and noble, ambition.

You wouldn’t think so.

In the areas it covers, EU law takes precedence over national law. This causes Brexiters to foam at the mouth, but what other arrangement do they think is possible? If every national court could defy the ruling of the EU court when it pleased, the Union would fall apart in five minutes. In any case, virtually the entirety of domestic law is unaffected by EU law: it applies to matters that arise out of the various EU competences, and Britain, along with every other member state, has had a voice in creating the legislation and has a judge in the court.

Any other club or association we joined would infringe on our sovereign rights in the same way. NATO does (we have obligations). The UN does (we don’t always honour our obligations, but we don’t object to the principle of their existence). It is mysterious why the EU excites this mixture of hysteria and venom. It is bizarre that, while accepting that there are benefits to membership of NATO and the UN which make membership worthwhile, we as a country cannot make the same calculation about the EU.

Nor, apparently, can we summon the grace to remember that we were not press-ganged into this club, but joined it voluntarily. Indeed, at the time, in some desperation.

Lastly, there is a point so obvious that it seems to have escaped almost everyone. The proof that we did not lose our sovereignty to the EU is that we are free to leave it.

The Government will not talk about any of this: it is afraid of analysis and hides from reality. Theresa May has thrown in her lot with the dreamers. Whether she is herself a dreamer, who knows? But in Hamburg she has been parroting the same old stuff about frictionless this and seamless that while proclaiming that Britain will abandon every institution that guarantees that seamlessness, including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

She says this is what “the people” voted for. They didn’t. They were told Britain would not have to leave the single market. As for the ECJ, I would bet that half of the Leave voters had never heard of it, and of those who had, most thought it was the same as the European Court of Human Rights. What they voted for was sovereignty.

They had only the most confused idea what it meant.  It was a word of mystical significance. No-one had explained to them that the splendour of that word could not find a home in the messy compromises of a modern state, let alone coexist with the sort of trading privileges which they took for granted and which underpinned the economy they depended on. No-one explained that we had not lost our sovereignty, we had merely done a trade-off. No-one ever said, “This is what can be achieved if we leave, and this is what it will cost.” Lies were told instead. It will be easy. We will be richer. There is a magical cake that can be both kept and eaten.

Tregeagle, in Cornish folklore, was sentenced to weave a rope of sand until the Day of Judgement. Doggedly, Theresa May weaves her rope. She cannot stop. If she stops, it will be clear that there is no rope, there is only sand.

Weave. Weave.



… and what about the tokamak?


photo by Barbara Peluzo


You can be sure the knives are out when the former chief of staff for the Minister for Brexit briefs against the Prime Minister.

James Chapman said David Davis had been “hamstrung” in the Brexit negotiations by Theresa May’s intransigence and that unless she showed more flexibility she would find it difficult to get Brexit through Parliament (BBC news, 30 June).

What had hamstrung Mr Davis, he said, was the Prime Minister’s hostility to the European Court of Justice. This court has featured several times in the fox blogs and will continue to do so unless Mrs May undergoes a Damascene conversion. It oversees transactions between European member states. It will therefore have a role to play as Britain withdraws from the EU. If we want to hang on to bits of the EU because the bottom will fall out of Britain if we don’t, it will go on having a role to play. This is simply a fact.

Mr Davis has tried to deal with his dilemma by trailing the idea of a new international court, consisting of British and European judges, to replace the ECJ. It will be subject to the same objections as the ECJ, however; it will not be a sovereign British court. It will be a fudge and an obvious one, it will be costly to set up and there seems no reason why the EU should accept it. But it will save the Prime Minister’s face. This is what Brexit has done to British politics.

It appears, meanwhile, that Mrs May will let Britain fall apart at the seams rather than concede ground on her “red line.”

A seam that particularly concerns Mr Chapman is Euratom. It should concern us all.

Euratom’s full name is the European Atomic Energy Community, and it was signed into existence on the same day in 1957 as the European Economic Community, from which it was legally separate. The reason for the separation was so that any potential opposition to atomic energy in the Community’s populations should not turn into opposition towards the Community itself. It is still separate, but nearly all its members are EU states.

Euratom’s purpose, explains Clare Moody, MEP (Guardian, 1 Feb.), was “to create a single market for … knowledge and resources in the peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy.” The European’s Commission’s webpage, (https://ec.europa.eu>EuropeanCommission>Horizon2020) says its aims are “to pursue nuclear research and training activities with an emphasis on continually improving nuclear safety, security and radiation protection, and notably to contribute to the long-term decarbonisation  of the energy system in a safe, efficient and secure way.”

What is wrong with that? Even if you think nuclear power is an invention of the Devil, a viewpoint with which I sympathise, we are stuck with its lethal waste products, and the more protection we have against them the better. One would think.

Theresa May doesn’t think so. The treaty with Euratom will lapse when the other treaties lapse, on our exit from the EU, and she will make no attempt to keep Britain in.

Why not? The clue is in Clare Moody’s phrase, “a single market for nuclear knowledge and resources.” Single market? Absolutely not. It will let immigrants into the country. They happen to be, as James Chapman points out, scientists earning six-figure salaries who pay a lot of tax, but that makes no difference. Not only will they be boosting the immigration  total, but the ECJ will  be involved in seeing that we treat them properly. That’s the clincher.

Safety is not the only thing that Euratom concerns itself with, although it accounts for the first two of its main priorities. Notably, it inspects all civilian nuclear facilities. It regulates the transport and exchange of nuclear materials. It is, Clare Moody states, the legal owner of all nuclear material, and is the legal purchaser, certifier and guarantor of any nuclear materials and technologies the UK purchases.

“This means,” she says, “that 21% of the UK’s electricity generation is based on our membership of Euratom.”

Does that mean that leaving Euratom will threaten our electricity supplies (which are not robust in any case)? The Commons cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee thinks so. Its chairman, Iain Wright, said the continued operations of the UK’s nuclear industry were “at risk.” The Committee recommended delaying departure from Euratom until alternative arrangements were in place, to minimise “disruptions to trade and threats to power supplies” (Guardian 2 May).

Government ministers assured the Committee that guaranteeing the UK’s supplies of nuclear fuel was a “high priority”, but gave no indication of how they propose to guarantee them.

The Committee was also concerned that Brexit might result in the removal of key standards, that the UK could become a dumping ground for energy-inefficient products, and that it might end up in the position of a “rule-taker” – unable to influence rules and standards it has to comply with. So much for sovereignty.

Euratom supports and regulates the medical applications of radiation, including the secure supply of radio-isotopes (priority no. 4 in the European Commission’s list). The Government has not announced what, when we leave the regulatory framework, it intends to do about this, either.

And then there’s JET (Joint European Torus). JET lives at Culham in the Oxfordshire countryside and, without disturbing the cows, generates temperatures exceeding those in the centre of the sun. It is a tokamak (the word is Russian and refers to its shape), looks like a cross between a ring doughnut and the spaceship Discovery One and is an experimental fusion reactor. It is a project of Euratom.

JET and the more advanced ITER, in France, for which it carries out testing, have been in development for a long time and not yet achieved nuclear fusion that yields usable amounts of energy. However, if this goal can be attained it should produce abundant electricity without radioactive waste. That is a prize worth going for. Nuclear fusion, which fuses together light atoms, in contrast to fission, which splits heavy ones, might be the energy of the future; it is already part of the science of the future. JET receives generous EU funding, too: 56 million euros per year. Do we really want to bail out of it, with all its opportunities for training new scientists, its challenges, and the benefits that will come from contribution? Theresa May does, if being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is the price for staying in.

There are other costs associated with leaving Euratom. One is a matter of hard cash: we will have to pay for all those nuclear materials and bits of hardware that are located in the UK and which at present we do not own, before they are transferred to us. The bill will be included in the “divorce settlement” which has to be negotiated. (Someone will have to explain to the Daily Mail why we have to pay for this stuff and aren’t being given it.) We will have to create new regulatory structures and a mechanism for reporting to the UN through the International Atomic Energy Agency, which at the moment the EU performs for us. We will have to create nuclear transport arrangements.

There will be the cost of setting up the new international court to replace the ECJ, if it happens, although that will presumably be shared between the multitude of other competences over which the ECJ has jurisdiction. (Or will it?  Will there be one court for Euratom and another for fisheries, a third for dealing with the European Search Warrant and a fourth for citizens’ rights..? Nothing is beyond the insanity of Brexit.)

And this is without calculating the EU funding we will lose for research and development, and the economic effects of losing what has been described as a trillion-pound market.

“It’s madness,” said Vince Cable. “It’s bonkers,” said the former director at Culham, Dr Steven Cowley. No matter. Theresa May holds to her course.

Behind everything lurks a darker question which no-one wants to ask. Do we trust our government with matters of safety, of regulation, of transparency to public scrutiny? I would be surprised if, after the events of the past month, one person in a hundred could be found who said “Yes.”

Inept, arrogant, intent on cost-cutting, ideologically opposed to regulation, pathologically secretive, this government has been revealed as incapable of discharging its responsibility to its citizens and incapable also of acknowledging its defects. We are expected to trust it to take on the oversight and regulation of an industry which requires the highest possible safety standards and which, privatised as far as it can be by past administrations, has often failed to meet those standards and whose failings have been routinely covered up. And this while it is attending to the thousand and one other things mandated by its pointless Brexit.

Are there any takers?