UK brings battle over access to Horizon Europe to a head

The research community in the United Kingdom and mainland Europe took a joint sigh of relief when the UK government finally launched formal dispute proceedings against the European Commission, aimed at breaking the post-Brexit blockage to Britain joining the European Union’s €95.5 billion (US$96 billion) Horizon Europe research programme.

Although the move by Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary and favourite to win the Conservative Party leadership battle to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is tinged with political undertones, it is likely to resolve, one way or the other, an 18-month delay to the UK’s association to the high-profile European scientific cooperation programme.

In a statement released on 16 August 2022, the UK government said it has written to the European Commission to launch dispute resolution proceedings “in an effort to end persistent delays to the UK’s access to EU scientific research programmes, including Horizon Europe”.

The statement said the UK negotiated access to a range of EU science and innovation programmes as part of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement in 2020, “but the EU has still refused to finalise UK access, causing serious damage to research and development in both the UK and EU member states”.

EU ‘in breach of agreement’

Foreign Secretary Truss said in the statement: “The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalise access to these important programmes. We cannot allow this to continue. That is why the UK has now launched formal consultations and will do everything necessary to protect the scientific community.”

The delays have not only prevented the UK from accessing Horizon Europe, the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, but also Copernicus, the earth observation programme, which provides data on climate change, and Euratom – the nuclear research programme.

The big problem for the UK is that the European Commission is holding firm to linking full association to the EU research programmes to the UK’s full implementation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and “the integrity of the EU’s Single Market”, as University World News reported last month.

This has already led the European Commission to launch four infringement procedures against the UK government for not complying with significant parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol and some observers think this latest move by the UK government is a tit-for-tat retaliation and comes at a helpful time for the Truss Tory leadership election campaign.

Triggering “formal consultations” – the mechanism under the Brexit agreement to resolve disputes – has already generated plenty of heat in the Tory-supporting national media in the UK, with the Daily Express running a front-page banner headline on 16 August declaring: “Truss fury over EU’s Brexit betrayal”.

UK move welcomed by academic researchers

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK move has been welcomed by many European and UK research leaders, with Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), a Belgium-based network of 23 leading universities – including four in the UK – tweeting: “Correct move by the UK government.”

Deketelaere went on to tweet that while he has “no sympathy for the UK position on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the European Commission has been completely wrong in tackling the UK association to Horizon Europe”.

He said: “There are no legal arguments for the EC [European Commission] not to sign the UK association agreement to Horizon Europe, only political ones. Good that this now will be established and hopefully will have the correct consequences.”

The Politico news site quoted Deketelaere accusing European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of “obsessive stubbornness” and suggesting that she “has really caused this action”.

He added: “So, well done UK government, whoever that may be presently, if they go ahead with this. This politicisation of research policy really has to end, and fast.”

Fingers crossed

The UK academic and research community is keeping its fingers crossed that the UK government’s move will solve the deadlock, with Peter Mason, head of global research and innovation policy at Universities UK International, saying: “Confirming UK association to Horizon Europe would be a massive win-win for the UK and the EU.

“The lingering uncertainty over association is profoundly destabilising for UK universities, so we welcome any effort aimed at finding a resolution. We implore both sides to put science before politics.”

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former government political adviser and civil servant, told University World News: “I wish this made me more optimistic about the UK eventually being part of Horizon or about it demonstrating a renewed commitment to science and research from Liz Truss.

“But it’s hard not to believe that the symbolism of a dispute with the EU is at least as important especially during the Conservative leadership contest. I really hope I’m wrong on all of these counts.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of 24 leading UK research-intensive universities, was more optimistic, saying: “Despite the delays, securing the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe remains the best outcome for both the UK and the EU, which is why scientists and researchers on both sides of the channel have consistently called for all parties to deliver what was agreed in the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“The [UK] government has made clear that full participation in Horizon Europe, Euratom and Copernicus continues to be its top priority. We hope the decision to enter formal consultations will help resolve the current impasse and unlock the enormous benefits that UK association to Horizon Europe and other key programmes will bring to both sides.”

Science|Business helpfully set out the timetable for arbitration in their report, saying the European Commission must respond within 10 days of the UK call and talks must be held within 30 days. Then, the UK can demand the creation of a three-judge international arbitration panel, which has to rule within 130 days on the British complaint about lack of access to Horizon Europe.

European Commission response

A spokesperson for the European Union told University World News: “The Commission takes note of the UK’s request for consultation and is going to follow up on this in line with the applicable rules, as set out in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

“Regarding UK association to Horizon Europe, we continue to recognise the mutual benefit in cooperation in science, research and innovation, nuclear research and space.

“However, the political setting of this file should be recalled: there are serious difficulties in the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and parts of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

“The TCA provides neither for a specific obligation for the Union to associate the United Kingdom to Union programmes at this point in time nor for a precise deadline to do so.”

The European Commission spokesperson went on to say: “We look forward to a prompt resolution that would allow the establishment of the association to Union programmes, and that would enhance the cooperation opportunities in research, space and other areas.”

In the meantime, the European Commission is stressing that UK entities can still benefit from transitional arrangements, which allow them to apply to Horizon Europe calls for proposals and undergo the evaluation procedures as if the association had already entered into force.

“However, grant agreements involving funding to UK entities may only be signed once association is effective. These transitional arrangements are in place for entities from any candidate Associated Country in Horizon Europe.

“Entities from non-associated third countries are eligible to participate in Horizon Europe projects without receiving funding, which in practice means that in most cases UK entities will be able to continue cooperation within Horizon Europe research consortia. However, funding from the EU budget would normally not be available for UK partners, and they would need to obtain their funding from other sources until the UK is associated.”

The spokesperson told University World News: “The Commission’s objective remains to have a stable and positive relationship with the UK based on our international agreements signed and ratified by both the EU and the UK.”

In the meantime, as University World News reported on 23 July 2022, the UK government is pressing ahead with a ‘Plan B’ to guarantee UK researchers access to funding regardless of whether the UK joins Horizon Europe or not.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. Nic also blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.