EU ready to start talks on UK participation in Horizon

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has publicly confirmed that she is ready to begin talks immediately on an association agreement to allow United Kingdom participation in Horizon Europe, the European Union’s flagship research programme.

The declaration of intent was slipped in at the end of a joint press conference with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held on Monday 27 February announcing agreement on a ‘Windsor Framework’ for solving the impasse over the UK’s desire for changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol was agreed in 2019 by then prime minister Boris Johnson to enable Brexit to be implemented before the 2019 general election and his attempts to tear it up were viewed as perfidy by the EU, with negative consequences for UK attempts to participate in Horizon Europe and other science programmes.

Von der Leyen had refused to start talks on association to Horizon Europe until ‘transversal issues’, an allusion to the bitter row over the protocol, had been settled.

But Johnson was ousted in the summer of 2022 after a string of controversies and his successor Liz Truss departed less than two months after taking office, only to be replaced by her leadership election rival, Sunak.

Sunak and Von der Leyen have been more than willing to work together to solve the protocol problem and, despite vehement opposition to aspects of the deal from hardline Brexiteers and Democratic Unionists, the mood in EU-UK relations had changed so completely by Monday that the European Commission president referred in public to Sunak as “dear Rishi”.

When challenged by a reporter from Le Soir newspaper in Belgium on whether this would lead to movement on the UK’s association with Horizon Europe, Von der Leyen declared: “This Windsor Framework is good for scientists and researchers in the EU.”

She added that although it is for now only an agreement in principle, “the moment it is implemented, I am happy to start immediately, right now, the work on an association agreement, which is the pre-condition to join Horizon Europe”.

“So [this is] good news for all those working in research and science!”

The protocol, an integral part of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, was established to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland post-Brexit and to allow Northern Ireland to continue to operate in the European Single Market for goods, unlike the rest of the UK.

However, it controversially led to the creation of an invisible trade border in the Irish Sea, that is, between the mainland of the UK and Northern Ireland, with goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK subjected to lengthy paperwork and delays, preventing many goods enjoyed in the UK from being available to the population in Northern Ireland.

The announcement that agreement had been reached on the protocol changes was warmly received in parliament, but the Democratic Unionists (DUP), while welcoming progress made, will examine the details before deciding whether to back it and that verdict is crucial to restoring the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, although the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, when challenged in a Sky News interview on Tuesday, refused to confirm whether the DUP could block implementation of the deal on the protocol.

German MEP Christian Ehler, who is lead rapporteur to the European Parliament on the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, said in a tweet: “If a solid majority in Westminster approves this deal, the UK is back on track to being a reliable partner for the EU and then we need to finalise UK association to #HorizonEU without further delay.”

Relief as roadblock removed

The declaration of intent to start talks on UK association to Horizon Europe was warmly welcomed in the UK and Europe by universities and researchers.

Responding to the announcement of the agreement of the Windsor Framework, Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We are relieved to hear that the Windsor Framework has been agreed. The removal of this political roadblock must now lead to the rapid confirmation of UK association to Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom, as set out in the [EU-UK] Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

“Full association with Horizon continues to be the best outcome for both the UK, and for our research partners across Europe and beyond. We urge all sides to start the necessary talks now so that association can take effect as soon as the framework is implemented.”

EUA warns against celebrating too early

Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association (EUA), told University World News on Tuesday: “It was of course excellent that Ursula von der Leyen explicitly opened the road for finalising association yesterday [Monday 27 February].”

He said on the face of it there is very little to discuss in talks on association, since both parties have already agreed that association should happen and agreed on the basics of the modalities.

“What we need now is a timeline to understand when the last bits will be agreed and when the association agreement can be finalised. Ursula von der Leyen was not completely clear about this, but hopefully we will get more information from the European Commission.

“We have learned over the last years not to celebrate too early, but I think that getting the confirmation regarding Horizon Europe already at the press conference is a very positive sign indeed.”

He said Europe’s excellence in research is “based on the fact that we cooperate with partners in Europe and beyond, and the Horizon programme is a very unique tool for doing this. Getting the UK back as an (almost) full member of the community is very much about strengthening this spirit of cooperation.”

Switzerland ‘should follow, too’

Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said in a tweet that policy-makers “MUST now bring UK association over the line”.

He added that if agreement can be reached after so much acrimony between the EU and the UK, it should also be possible for Switzerland and the EU to come together for the sake of Europe.

Flexibility needed to update association deal

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), told University World News: “This is of course excellent news, welcomed with big relief and enthusiasm within LERU. Notwithstanding the pessimism over the past years, LERU always kept on fighting and pushing for this association and we are very happy that we have reached this point now.”

He hoped that both parties will practise the necessary flexibility and willingness to come to an updated – where necessary – agreement, as soon as possible.

“Looking at the first reactions on both sides of the Channel, I am quite confident that this will be the case. Already the symbolic value for politicians on both sides of the Channel is enormous if they pull this off.”

He said the benefits to European universities of UK participation “have already been proven over the past decades”. These included exchange of and collaboration between talented researchers on both sides of the Channel, joint development of research policies and research policy issues, and “common breakthroughs through fantastic joint research”.

“All of that will hopefully be picked up again asap and continued with the same success as in the past,” Deketelaere said.

High value to UK science

A briefing issued last month by the Russell Group of leading UK research universities outlined the benefits of full association for the UK, including:

• The unrivalled scale of the scheme in terms of funding and opportunities for collaboration.

• Enhancement of Britain’s reputation as a global player.

• Continued involvement with the European Research Council, which funds high-quality research.

• Access to training opportunities for UK scientists.

• Funding for businesses of all sizes.

• Innovation, growth and impact through networks, grants and support.

The briefing describes Horizon Europe as “the world’s largest ever programme for multi-country collaborative R&D”, which “opens the door for high-quality collaboration with the best researchers, innovators and businesses worldwide”.

Under the previous programme, Horizon 2020, the UK established 31,000 collaborative links with countries around the world. These links were made possible by the near frictionless collaboration provided by Horizon.

“It allows members to operate at the same scale as US or Chinese counterparts – crucial to research such as clinical trials as it gives members access to a vast network of patients to trial potentially life-changing medical treatments.

“The scale, ambition and associated financial risk assumed by the EU programmes far exceeds anything that could be achieved on a bilateral basis. More importantly, the funding streams, processes and networks are in place and can be tapped into as soon as association is secured,” the briefing said.