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What will happen to pharmacy if the UK votes to leave the European Union?

Exponents of both camps in the referendum on whether the UK should remain part of the EU are fighting hard to win the vote on 23 June 2016, with claim and counter-claim; hyperbole and instant rebuttal with regard to how a majority leave vote could be actioned. A profession that relies on research and evidence would find it difficult to pick its way through the current wealth of opinion to determine the way forward.

A majority ‘remain’ vote will result in almost no change to current practice. Legislation will be initiated in Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels with adoption and enactment in the usual way, whilst Wales will continue to be informed by written notice. A majority vote to leave, however, will result in substantive changes.

In the event of a ‘leave’ vote, the UK prime minister will immediately draft a letter to the president of the European Council, invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which states that “any member state may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”.

From that point on, a process of negotiation commences. This is one of the most unclear parts of the process, as there is no existing precedent and it may be that negotiation would last as long as it takes to find a satisfactory resolution. Article 50 itself states that membership of the EU ceases at the end of negotiations, or two years after the date on the letter from the prime minister expressing a wish to leave. The negotiating period may, in fact, be extended by mutual agreement between both parties, should negotiations not be concluded.

Lord Lawson, a leading light for the Vote Leave campaign, claims this should take no more than six months. He has stated his absolute faith in our senior civil servants’ ability to expedite the process and deliver a much more speedy resolution than the ‘remain’ camp’s estimate of several years.

Sir Jon Cunliffe, former British permanent representative to the EU, suggests the whole process should be dealt with in three phases: terms for withdrawal; agreement on the nature of the future relationship with the EU; and agreeing individual trade deals around the world, to replace those agreed by the EU for all its members.

The main issue for the pharmacy profession will be a potential fourth phase: unpicking EU legislation already adopted into UK legislation.

Even though health is an area that the EU traditionally avoids, there is a wealth of legislation impacting pharmacists in their day jobs, either defining terms and conditions, such as the working time directive, or profession-specific activity covered by legislation on pharmacovigilance standards. Membership of the anti-counterfeit medicines system introduced in the Falsified Medicines Directive would also be at risk, with a potential renegotiation of the UK’s status to include us as an operational member of the system, while remaining outside the EU.

The UK has several options on how radical it wants to be with this phase, which may well be determined by the margin of a potential ‘leave’ vote victory.

At its most dynamic, the UK government could make a root and branch review of every aspect of law originating from Europe and amend them as the UK Parliament sees fit. This would impact upon every common European standard that relates to the profession, but could take years to complete.

We may see a wish by the UK government to ensure that standards, even though they are not dictated by Europe, recognise the need for the UK to continue to engage with Europe on a daily basis. Alternatively, we may see a wish to be completely radical and to set new standards that don’t relate to those we currently share with the EU.

What is clear is this process is likely to be several years away, giving us all time to prepare for change.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2016.20201152

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