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It’s not you, it’s me: UK research faces up to the realities of EU divorce

EU and UK negotiators are not seen as far apart on research, but with Article 50 now triggered, getting a deal on R&D is likely to be some way down the list of priorities

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With the ball finally rolling on Brexit this week, both sides are being urged to lock in an early deal on foreign citizens’ rights and secure the UK’s future access to EU research programmes.

However, there is a weary acceptance among research institutions that politics — and time — will see the sector submerged in a slew of complicated fights over post-Brexit freedom of movement and adherence to EU law.

“Top of the order for universities is getting a deal on the rights of EU nationals to remain in the country,” said Oxford University's head of Brexit strategy, Alastair Buchan.

It is expected the UK will guarantee that the three million EU nationals already in the UK can stay, as long as British people living in the EU get the same assurance.

“I think there could be a quick win here,” said Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at Cambridge University.

Other issues will take longer, said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. “Research will take a while to come to the negotiating table, we’re looking at next year.”

British prime minister Theresa May put Brexit on course by triggering Article 50 on Wednesday, but talks will not get underway until after the EU negotiating team, headed by French Commission civil servant Michel Barnier, receives its guidelines from the remaining 27 member states on April 29. Barnier will then have a number of weeks to translate these guidelines into battle plans.

European Council President Donald Tusk said the first phase must focus on, “key arrangements for an orderly withdrawal.”

The guidelines for 2017 are expected to focus on four issues: the rights of EU and UK nationals now residing in either sphere; the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and maintaining the common travel area between the two countries; settling the UK’s financial commitments; and where London-based EU agencies will relocate.

May made specific reference to residency in her letter triggering Article 50, saying, “There are [….] many citizens of the remaining member states living in the UK, and UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, and we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights.”

If leaders can get the breakup details settled by the end of the year, proposals for a free-trade deal and other arrangements will then be tabled.

As Article 50 was triggered, politicians who support the UK’s exit gathered outside European Commission HQ, the Berlaymont, to eat cake and clink champagne glasses.

A grim-faced Tusk, clutching the six-page Article 50 notice letter in his hand, told the EU’s second-largest economy “we already miss you”.

The deadline for an agreement is March 29 2019, when the clock officially runs out on the UK’s membership.

Not far apart

When negotiators do eventually get round to technical examination of the research sector in 2018, there are conflicting expectations on how things will proceed.

Some are urging negotiators to shoot for a relatively quick deal, as a way of making progress ahead of potentially stickier conversations, such as special rights for the UK’s financial services sector.  

Compared to other topics, EU countries are not far apart on research, said Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator with the European University Association.

The UK has not ruled out continued participation in EU research programmes, or the Erasmus student exchange programme, which gives students the opportunity to spend time studying abroad.

“Research is among the least complicated issues in the talks,” Jorgensen said. “Unless there is extreme intransigence from the Brits we can get a deal.”

If looked at in isolation, research might be an easy “chapter” for leaders to close, but it will get submerged into much bigger issues, Deketelaere believes.

“There’s unlikely to be special treatment for research,” he said. “Barnier has said negotiations will not be done on a sector by sector approach. If they were, you could imagine a country like Poland, for example, saying, if our carpenters and our plumbers can’t get into UK, why should our researchers?”

EU-27 is sure to drive a very hard bargain, Deketelaere said. “Barnier was able to pick from the best people in the Commission. You almost feel compassion for the UK, I don’t think they have the same negotiating resources.”

Research buried in the issues

Disagreement on residency rights post-Brexit is one huge obstacle to a deal on research.

In her letter triggering Article 50, May makes it clear that control of immigration is more important than access to the single market, saying, “We understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no cherry picking.” Given this, “The UK does not seek membership of the single market,” May writes.  

“The research community, a highly mobile class, threatens May’s immigration approach,” Deketelaere points out.

Jorgensen agrees that a “hugely difficult” part of the talks will be finding agreement on freedom of movement.

The UK’s dismissive attitude to the suggestion that it must settle a bill of around €60 billion could also halt progress, while the European Court of Justice, which acts as the ultimate court of arbitration across the EU, is another expected stumbling block.

The UK government has been extremely rigid about leaving EU jurisdiction and signing research contracts with the Commission would bring the country back under EU law. 

However, this jurisdiction is “extremely limited” in the field of research, said Jorgensen. “It would apply on a project by project basis, and would only be relevant if there was a dispute among a consortium. Say a research project produces a new invention: there would be nothing stopping the British partner in the group taking the intellectual property under British law once the project wraps up, for example,” he said. 

“You will have a problem doing business with your neighbour if you can’t accept a multinational arbiter,” Jorgensen added.

Look to Israel

Several people point to Israel as an example for the UK to keep in mind during talks.

What makes Israel’s relationship with the EU an attractive template for the UK government is that the country takes part in EU research programmes but is not bound by freedom of movement or a member of the customs union.

As to the cost to the UK of an Israel-style agreement, assuming the next EU research budget is worth €100 billion, a target figure being touted by several politicians in Brussels, the UK could expect to chip in 20 per cent, or €20 billion – a proportionate share given the size of its economy compared to the EU’s.

“The decision to sign an association agreement is not so complicated. It’s one regulation. Speak to people in banking: there you really see the complexity in these talks, with many regulations to cover,” said Jorgenson.

Deketelaere however thinks it is “not obvious” that the expunged UK, which represents a unique case, would fit the current criteria for an associate member. “There may have to be a revision of definitions before the UK could get into FP9,” he said.

Do not go it alone

Buchan expects the UK to emerge in two years’ time in a worse position. “We’re not going to have it as good as we did before,” he said. “We’ve put in something of the order of €4 billion into Horizon 2020 so far and got back €8 billion.”

Between 2011-2015, the UK national research funding grew by almost 4 per cent per annum, while funding for UK research from the EU grew at an annual rate of 13 per cent.

“My worry is that many [UK negotiators] think they can go it alone and create a British version of the European Research Council. But a British competition for British-only participants? That’s just bad science,” Buchan said.

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Related subjects: Israel, LERU, Horizon 2020, Brexit