Ominous questions on UK Erasmus+, Horizon participation

The United Kingdom government has cast doubt on UK commitment to full participation post 2020 in Erasmus+, the European Union’s student and staff study abroad, training and exchange scheme, prior to negotiations over the future relationship with Europe, which are due to begin on Monday. But renewed risk of a no-deal Brexit threatens both Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe participation.

The UK will consider “options for participation in elements of Erasmus+ on a time-limited basis provided the terms are in the UK’s interests”, according to a document outlining its approach to the negotiations, which was published on Thursday.

At the same time the document suggests the UK is “ready to consider” standard third-party participation as a non-EU member in the EU’s Horizon Europe research framework programme, saying it will “consider a relationship in line with non-EU member state participation” for the successor to Horizon 2020, as well as for the Euratom Research and Training and Copernicus programmes.

The government also says a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement should include a long-term legal basis for future cooperation in civil nuclear research and development in both fission and fusion, including advanced nuclear technologies and waste management.

Vivienne Stern, director at Universities UK International, said universities would like a stronger commitment to the Erasmus+ programme as negotiations unfold.

“We believe all parts of the programme benefit the UK and are strongly aligned with the government’s ambitions for a Global Britain. The benefits of Erasmus+ are broad and clear, creating opportunities for thousands of students from schools, colleges and universities, as well as helping develop skills demanded by employers and boosting UK businesses and the economy to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds every year.”

She also stressed that Universities UK regards it as essential that the UK continues to be part of the Horizon Europe programme. “It is the Champions League for research and allows us to work not only with EU partners, but also a range of non-EU countries. Staying part of this programme is in the mutual interest of the UK and EU, and is necessary if the UK is to become a science superpower.”

According to Times Higher Education, a government source said the negotiating mandate on Horizon Europe is to seek “full association”, which has raised hopes of a stronger push for it than the approach document currently suggests.

Potentially significant obstacles

However, there remain two potentially significant obstacles to achieving agreement on that. One is that the terms of associate membership have yet to be agreed by EU member states and may not meet the criteria for the UK continuing negotiations.

The government is seeking to realise its vision, set out in its manifesto in the December general election and in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech on 3 February, for a future relationship with the EU based on friendly cooperation “between sovereign equals, with both parties respecting one another’s legal autonomy and right to manage their own resources as they see fit”.

The emphasis is on seeking an arrangement in which the EU does not have any control over UK laws and EU institutions do not have any jurisdiction in the UK because the government is seeking divergence for political reasons.

One of the red lines for the government is no return to freedom of movement. But freedom of movement was a condition of associate member participation in Horizon 2020 by non-EU members Norway and Switzerland. If it is also made a condition of participation in Horizon Europe, the UK may well walk away unless its recently announced Global Talent Visa route is accepted as the basis of a compromise in which the UK operates its own guarantee of mobility for researchers.

The government has also written a caveat into the approach document, that “any agreements relating to Union programmes should contain fair terms for UK participation. This should include fair treatment of participants, [and] a fair and appropriate financial contribution”.

However, currently nobody can be sure what the terms of associate participation in Horizon Europe will be, such as how much associate members will have to pay to participate or whether they will have access to all programmes, because the terms have yet to be agreed.

No separate deal for higher education or research

A second, potentially more fundamental problem could be the UK’s overall approach to the negotiations, which is expected to involve only accepting a deal in the round, with the government not prepared to seal individual sector interests on the way. This could see any agreement on Erasmus+ and-or Horizon Europe participation lost if there is no agreement on a trade deal.

The European Commission has said of Erasmus+, for instance: “The possible participation of the UK in future programmes after 2020 will depend on the outcome of the overall negotiations on the future relationship between the two parties.”

With both the UK government and EU leaders taking an increasingly hard line on negotiations in recent weeks, but particularly in the past week, and a widely held assumption that the negotiations will be too complex to finish before the end of the transition period at the end of 2020, the risk of a no trade deal Brexit is rising.

In the approach document the UK has threatened to “consider whether to walk away” as early as June, when a high-level meeting is planned, unless it is clear that progress towards its vision is possible.

That progress is already looking hard to achieve as the EU has intimated that it is not prepared to give the UK a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement similar to the one it has with Canada and involving ‘zero tariffs, zero quotas’ without a levelling of the playing field – by which it means the UK would have to remain aligned with changes to the rules covering state subsidies, environmental standards and workers’ rights in future, something the UK has refused to countenance because it is seeking divergence.

The approach document underlines that if a Free Trade Agreement cannot be reached, the trading relationship will rest on the terms of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement and “look similar to Australia’s relationship with the EU”.

There has been frequent talk by ministers in recent weeks of an “Australian deal” being the fallback if a Canada++ deal cannot be achieved – ministers and civil servants have actually been banned from using the term no-deal Brexit and have been told to talk of an Australian deal instead – but in reality, since Australia does not have a deal with the EU and trades on World Trade Organization terms with it, this means simply means no deal.

Regarding Horizon Europe, at stake is participation in what will be the world’s largest ever programme for multi-country collaborative R&D, bringing together researchers from Europe and beyond, including those from countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan.

Joanna Burton, policy manager at the Russell Group (of leading research universities), on Wednesday told a Foundation for Science and Technology event on international collaboration post Brexit: “Our members think that full association to the next programme should be the government’s priority. This will offer the best opportunities for the UK.”

However she warned that, while currently associate members enjoy the same full access as member states, there is potential for that to be different in future and it is vital that the UK should be able to access the full range of pillars of the programme, especially pillar one which includes European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie grants.