UK rejoins EU’s Horizon Europe programme: Terms agreed

The European Commission and the United Kingdom government have reached an agreement in principle on the association of the UK to Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship £85 billion (US$91 billion) research programme, and the Copernicus programme under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

In a joint statement the EU and UK said: “This is a landmark moment for scientific and space collaboration between the EU and the UK.”

The association will repair a huge hole in research collaboration inflicted by the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU to complete Brexit.

Agreement on the association became possible only after agreement was reached in February on the Windsor Framework, which ended wrangling over the UK’s stalled implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a measure to protect the integrity of the single market and the UK’s internal market earlier this year.

Both the Horizon agreement and the agreement of the Windsor Framework signify a switch to a more pragmatic approach to relations with the EU by the UK government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak compared with the hardline approach of his two predecessors, Liz Truss, who lasted only 49 days as prime minister, and Boris Johnson.

The joint statement said: “Association to Horizon Europe will further strengthen and deepen links between the scientific communities in the UK and the EU, foster innovation and enable researchers to work together on global challenges from climate to health.

“The UK government and the European Commission look forward to enabling collaboration between their researchers in which the UK and the EU share a mutual interest, such as in new and emerging technologies.

“To this end, the EU will assess UK participants’ access to strategic parts of the Horizon Europe programme on equal terms with other associated countries.”

UK researchers will be able to fully participate in Horizon Europe, the world’s largest collaborative research programme, on the same terms as researchers from other associated countries, including leading consortia, from the 2024 Work Programmes and onwards – including any 2024 calls opening this year.

For calls from the 2023 Work Programmes, the European Commission will continue to administer transitional arrangements and the UK will continue to provide funding under the UK Guarantee.

“UK and EU scientists and researchers can have confidence in continuing long-term partnerships with their counterparts,” the statement said.

The association of the UK to Copernicus will enable the UK’s access to a state-of-the art capacity to monitor the Earth and to its services.

“The UK’s association to Copernicus comes at a crucial moment, where the Copernicus space infrastructure and its information services will evolve further and their contribution to understanding and acting on environmental and climate change related challenges is more important than ever.”

The UK will also have access to EU Space Surveillance and Tracking services. The European Commission and the UK government will take forward joint outreach and engagement activities designed to encourage the participation of UK entities within both programmes.

However, the UK will not be joining the Euratom programme, choosing instead to take forward its own fusion energy strategy.

Financial terms agreed

In line with the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the European Commission and UK government have also agreed appropriate terms regarding the UK’s financial contribution for the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 reflecting the fact that UK researchers did not participate in Horizon Europe or Copernicus from their beginning in 2021.

The 7 September agreement in principle “marks another step forward for the EU and UK to work together in the spirit of friendly cooperation on issues of shared interest”, the statement read. “The European Commission and the UK government intend to make full use of the opportunities provided by the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”

Following the announcement, the European Commission and the UK government will work together with the aim of promptly adopting the necessary legal instruments. These legal instruments need to be adopted by the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes subject to prior approval by the Council of the European Union.

A joint statement from Sunak and Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for Science, Innovation and Technology, said Sunak had secured “improved financial terms of association to Horizon Europe that are right for the UK – increasing the benefits to UK scientists, value for money for the UK taxpayer, and mitigating the impact that the EU’s delays to our association will have on participation rates of researchers”.

The UK will not pay for the time where UK researchers have been excluded from since 2021, with costs starting from January 2024. In a significant concession, the UK will be compensated should UK scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme. This wasn’t the case under the original terms of association.

UK researchers can apply immediately

UK researchers can apply immediately for grants and bid to take part in projects under the Horizon programme, “with certainty that the UK will be participating as a fully associated member for the remaining life of the programme to 2027”, the statement said.

“Once adopted, the UK will also be able to join the governance of EU programmes – which the UK has been excluded from over the past three years – ensuring we can shape collaboration taking place next year. And UK researchers will be able to lead consortia in the next work programme of Horizon Europe projects,” the statement said.

Horizon will give UK companies, universities and research institutions “unrivalled opportunities to lead global work to develop new technologies and research projects, in areas from health to AI”, the statement noted.

“This will not only open up cooperation with the EU, but also Norway, New Zealand and Israel which are part of the programme – and countries like Korea and Canada which are looking to join too.”

UK universities ‘delighted’ by agreement

President of Universities UK Professor Dame Sally Mapstone said: “The entire research community, within our universities and beyond, will be delighted at the news that an agreement has been reached.

“Allowing our scientists to work together, irrespective of borders, is in all of our interests. Our universities will now do everything possible to ensure the UK rapidly bounces back towards previous levels of participation and is able to secure genuine value, delivering the wealth of research opportunities available.”

Chief Executive of the Russell Group of leading research universities, Dr Tim Bradshaw said: “Association to Horizon Europe is tremendous news for UK science, research and innovation.

“This deal is a true win-win for everyone. The scale of research supported by Horizon Europe will help deliver medical breakthroughs, new technologies, and advances in areas such as AI to improve all our lives and help tackle the shared environmental, economic, and social challenges we face.”

Dr Diana Beech, chief executive officer of London Higher said: “The confirmation that the UK will rejoin Horizon Europe is welcome news for universities across London, the UK’s top ranked innovation cluster. With the assurance of association, London’s higher education and research community now has a renewed sense of purpose and optimism.”

“Our universities now have the certainty and stability needed to continue powering the engine of UK innovation and to build connectivity across the regions.

“We are committed to working collaboratively with our European partners, leveraging our collective expertise to drive innovation, support research excellence.”