Why we want to stay in the EU

Rex Harris (77), David Kennedy (62), Allan Walton (40), Oliver Brooks (26)

The ages of the authors are in the brackets after their names and we cover quite a range, from a retired professor to a final year PhD student and all four have a strong professional interest in the rare-earth metals.

Many fellow scientists and engineers have already emphasised the damage that would be done to UK based science and engineering if we voted to leave the EU and we endorse fully this view. However, we also thought that we should add our personal reflections on the very positive influence the EU and its predecessor, the EEC, has had on our studies of these metals and why it would be nothing short of a disaster for us to lose our membership of this organisation.

Rare earth metals sound very esoteric and a common and understandable reaction is that these studies have little or no impact on everyday life but this could not be more wrong. Rare earth metals such as neodymium (Nd) form essential components of rare earth-iron(Fe)-boron(B) permanent magnets which, without doubt, are revolutionising the design and performance of electric generators, motors and actuators and form essential components in off-shore wind and tidal generators, data storage, electric bicycles, electric cars, vacuum cleaners, robots etc, etc.

It is no exaggeration to state that these elements are absolutely essential in humanity’s drive to battle climate change and to develop a sustainable society.

Establishment of secure supplies and appropriate recycling strategies are absolutely essential and the EU has developed a long term strategy to tackle these issues and the UK science and engineering community have and are having a significant voice in these deliberations. A particular problem facing these and other vital raw materials is their current and longer term availability and this has been recognised by the EU and the rare earths have been placed at the top of their endangered list.

It is important to emphasise that the long ranging nature of the EU scientific and engineering plans are certainly not a recent development and, for instance, the appreciation of the importance of the Nd-Fe-B based permanent magnets was recognised immediately by the EEC with the first reports of their discovery in Japan and the USA in 1984.This lead quickly to the formation of the EEC funded Concerted European Action on Magnets (CEAM). This EEC-wide programme ran for around 10 years and was recognised widely as a great success with the UK playing influential roles in the processing of these magnets and in their applications in actuators and motors. Perhaps the most important contribution of the EEC and of CEAM was the firm establishment of a permanent magnet community throughout the European Community which persists to this day and forms the framework for future actions.

Two of us are old enough to remember how difficult it was to represent business in Europe, where even to transport exhibition materials necessitated carrying a “carnet” and presenting documents at every border to prove that the materials were not being exported. Younger exporters may have no concept of the relative ease with which we currently operate and any expectation of decreased regulation is deluded.

Currently the UK is again playing a pivotal role in EU sponsored programmes with an emphasis now on raw materials and recycling. It is these strategic issues which we believe make it imperative that we vote to stay in the EU and continue to make a real and significant contribution to the direction of particular research programmes.

The issues we now face in terms of likely constraints in the supply of vital raw materials can only be solved on the basis of EU-wide measures, with waste materials moving across national borders. For instance, comprehensive expertise on rare earth metals and their recycling, exists only on an EU level and without these networks, insufficient supplies could exist within one country and therefore it is essential to coordinate the necessary technologies to achieve a full recycling flow sheet. With these problems very much in mind, in recent years the EU has provided substantial funds to enable these networks to be established with the UK being an important partner.

We have to work together with our EU partners and to paraphrase a Native American saying, we should remember, at all times, that:

The UK was not given to us by our parents but loaned to us by our children.

It is their future that must be the overriding consideration in the forthcoming referendum.