Horizon Europe proposal paves way for UK participation

The European Commission’s €100 billion (US$118 billion) proposal for Horizon Europe, the successor research and innovation programme to Horizon 2020, adopted last Thursday, includes a crucial addition that could pave the way for the United Kingdom to be allowed to participate in the programme after leaving the European Union.

A proposed rule change on third-country participation will open up the programme to participants anywhere in the world. Currently only selected countries which are geographically close to Europe are allowed to participate.

The rule change would allow the UK to pay to participate, without having to secure a place on any finite list, which would remove that obstacle from the Brexit negotiations.

Last month UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech that the UK is seeking full continued participation in the European Union’s next research and innovation programmes post-Brexit, which it would willingly pay for.

In a speech on science and modern industrial strategy, she said she wanted the UK to have a “deep science partnership with the European Union, because this is in the interests of scientists and industry right across Europe”.

Spelling out what that commitment meant, she said: “The United Kingdom would like the option to fully associate ourselves with the excellence-based European science and innovation programmes – including the successor to Horizon 2020 and Euratom R&T [the Euratom Research and Training programme].”

On Thursday, Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said: “The new Horizon Europe rules for association of third countries present a clear but flexible framework, including an open door for the UK to begin negotiations on post-Brexit association, hopefully very soon.

“It is a pretty good day for those of us who would like the UK to stay in.”

He said: “It will be interesting to see how this will work globally, but a model that does not have geographical limits makes perfect sense for universities – they make partnerships where it makes sense, not just where the partner is geographically close.”

Responding to the European Commission’s plan on Thursday, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “I’m pleased that the European Commission's plan leaves the door open for the UK to secure participation as a full associate country in this next programme. This is something Universities UK has been calling for from the beginning of the Brexit talks.

“It was encouraging to hear the UK prime minister confirming last month that this is also the government’s intention. We now need to see this confirmed as part of the formal agreement later this year.”

Tension over level of influence

The change has been talked about for a number of years, but will have a significant impact for UK universities, due to the decision to leave the EU.

This does not mean that the whole issue of UK participation has been resolved, however. Even supposing the commission’s proposal is agreed, tension will remain over how much influence UK universities can have.

“Where you might see conflict is over how much influence the UK will have over programmes,” Jørgensen said. “Now the commission clearly says they can have no decision-making power and the UK says it wants its level of influence to mirror the contribution it will make. So a solution will still require a little creativity.”

He said this proposal moves negotiations on towards a discussion about which part of the programme the UK should be part of, how much money should go in, what kind of soft influence it can have.

Last month Prime Minister May said an association with the research and innovation programme “would involve an appropriate UK financial contribution, which we would willingly make. In return, we would look to maintain a suitable level of influence in line with that contribution and the benefits we bring.”

She said the UK was ready to discuss these details with the European Commission as soon as possible.

Jarvis, speaking for UK Universities, said: “The UK should be a major player in this next programme which starts in 2021. International collaboration is essential to the success of research and innovation. The EU’s programme provides a ready-made platform for collaborating with key European partners, including six of the UK’s top 10 research partners.”