19 Jan 2021   |   News

Exploratory talks on Horizon Europe association to start in weeks

With Brexit trade deal out of the way, the fine detail – and specific terms - of how non-EU countries collaborate in the new science programme can be discussed for the first time

Horizon Europe

EU officials will begin talks in the next few weeks with non-EU countries that have expressed interest in taking part in the bloc’s forthcoming research programme.

The exploratory stage of negotiations on associate membership of the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe programme, which formally starts in February, will see discussion on specific terms and conditions for the first time.

These sessions are designed to flag thorny technical issues before governments sit down for formal talks on joining the seven-year programme.

According to one EU official, the hopes are for "speedy” progress to lay the ground for real negotiations higher up the political food chain, that are set to follow in the next couple of months, with the Commission hoping to pin down signed agreements before the summer.

Formal talks can start once Horizon Europe is adopted into law and the Commission obtains a negotiating mandate from the EU Council, which represents the 27 member states.

The Commission already has “standing authorisation” to launch such negotiations with the so-called category B and most of the category C countries – a clutch of states geographically near Europe that includes Israel, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine.

The talks will inject a sense of urgency in the bloc’s goal of expanding formal research ties beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

The 2021-2027 programme opens up the possibility for more countries to gain associate membership, a status that allows countries to participate in EU research projects under the same conditions as member states. Currently, besides the 27 EU members, 16 non-EU countries, including Switzerland, Norway, Israel and Iceland, are associate members of the EU research programme.  The UK will become an association partner for the first time this year.

Discussions on widening the global membership, which began in 2018, were suspended while officials tied up Brexit loose ends with the UK. The lengthy logjam has prompted concerns over the likelihood of keeping the attention of some of the far-off rich countries – like Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore and New Zealand – with which the commission has raised the possibility of full partnership.

With the offer to join Horizon Europe floating inconclusively for years, officials from some of these countries say they are still awaiting details of membership terms from Brussels, amid warnings that there may be too little time to finalise deals. A commission spokesman declined to comment on the progress of talks.

Open to the world                                                              

Horizon Europe’s mission statement is to be “open to the world”, but the science programme may struggle to live up to this ambition without a flexible offer that entices the big science powerhouses to join in.

The rules say third-country associates must have “good capacity” in science and technology, and a “commitment to a rules-based market economy, including fair and equitable dealing with intellectual property rights, backed by democratic institutions” – suggesting China, for instance, might be ineligible.

Officials in non-EU countries are concerned about the logistics of getting a deal to join Horizon Europe into legal force in time for the first Horizon Europe grants, which could start in March or April.

Depending on the terms of the deal, it may take many months before it could be cleared in non-EU countries, with politicians needing time to study any text in detail before agreeing to it.

Officials close to the negotiations say that issues in dispute are likely to revolve around money arrangements Brussels puts down for non-EU countries. There will be very different political calculations now than when the early association talks began, back in 2018, when public purses weren’t under the same severe pandemic-related pressure.

In the end, it’s an open question whether any of the big science players like Japan or Canada will associate with Horizon Europe. Legal and contractual complications have deterred some non-EU universities and research institutions from participating in EU research programmes in the past.

For example, US officials have said the EU programme has too many legal and bureaucratic differences from similar American programmes to make a formal association work.

Senior US officials delivered a sharp message last year that the Trump administration wasn’t interested in the EU’s terms, but there’s fresh hope in Brussels that the incoming Biden team brings a new willingness to go deeper on science collaboration.

Brexit deal offers clues

The recently agreed trade agreement between the UK and Brussels offers some idea of what will be on offer to foreign countries, though each bilateral deal may end up having unique features.

The UK will pay into Horizon Europe a sum that is proportional to its gross domestic product. A further sum, the participation fee, will be levied at 4 per cent of the country’s GDP-based contribution.

If, for two consecutive years, the country takes out more than it puts into the programme, by an amount that exceeds 8% of its contribution, it will have to reimburse the EU to cover the difference.

Both sides can unilaterally terminate UK participation in Horizon Europe. The UK can do so with 45 days' notice if the conditions for participation substantially change, the country’s financial contribution increases by 15 per cent or they are excluded from more than 10 per cent of the programme.

UK researchers and firms will not participate in the programme’s new European Innovation Council Fund, which offers equity to start-up and university spin-off firms.

In the past, when a non-EU country like Israel joined EU research schemes as associate members, this membership covered the whole programme.

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