22 Apr 2019   |   News

Moedas: ‘I will fight for having the UK on board’ in Horizon Europe

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas tells Science|Business he ‘cannot see’ Horizon Europe ‘without the UK’

EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas has told Science|Business he is putting his weight behind ensuring the UK takes part in the EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe.

“I cannot see the European programme, to be frank, in the future - whatever happens to the UK - without the UK,” said Moedas. “I will fight for having the UK on board” he said, “I hope that the UK also fights for that.”

Moedas was speaking on 16 April, ahead of a major vote the next day, when the European Parliament approved a deal on Horizon Europe with EU member states. However, the rules for foreign participation were noticeably absent from the text.

“The international association point is a very delicate and important one for the future of Europe, because of the Brexit situation,” said Moedas. “The reality is that it’s probably a good thing that we keep it for last because we don’t have yet a clear view of what’s going to happen on the Brexit point.”

There is currently no telling when clarity will finally arrive, but Moedas said he isn’t worried. “It’s probably something that will become clear in the next couple of months,” he said. “I don’t foresee any major problems on those discussions on the international associations, to be frank.”

Horizon Europe’s association rules are to be discussed as part of negotiations on the EU’s overall long-term budget, which was originally supposed to be finalised in time for the next EU summit in Sibiu, Romania on 9 May – six weeks after the UK was due leave the EU on 29 March.

Currently, member states are deadlocked over the EU budget and Commission proposals to increase richer countries’ contributions, while cutting money paid to poorer member states.

In December, budget commissioner Günther Oettinger pushed the budget deadline back to October.

UK participation in Horizon Europe

Following the postponement of the second Brexit date of 12 April and the agreement to extend the UK’s membership until 31 October, it is now anyone’s guess if, when, and how the country will leave. A no-deal crash out remains on the cards, but is less likely, given the UK and the EU twice moved to avert it.

That means although there are ways for researchers in the UK to benefit from EU research programmes after Brexit, they will have no certainty until the end of the proposed transition period, in December 2020.

With the new Brexit deadline of 31 October coinciding with the end of the current Commission’s term, Moedas will be out of the game before negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU – sketched out in the Political Declaration – get underway. He doesn’t plan on returning to Brussels politics for the next five or ten years, after which he might consider standing for the European Parliament in his native Portugal.

Horizon Europe is a proposed €94.1 billion programme that will fund competitive research grants in the EU from 2021. UK-based researchers are among the top performers in the current programme, Horizon 2020.

Researchers in non-EU countries that have association agreements with the EU – such as Norway, Switzerland, Israel, and Turkey – can get Horizon 2020 grants. Those in countries without association agreements can participate in Horizon-funded research projects if they cover their own costs, though there are allowances for several lower-income countries.

EU not getting enough credit

Though upbeat about the prospects for Horizon Europe, Moedas remains concerned that EU funding for science doesn’t get more attention. The most recent case in point is the unveiling of the first real image of a black hole on 10 April at simultaneous press conferences in Washington and Brussels, with Moedas presiding at the latter.

“There were a lot of people talking about we did in Brussels. But then when I get home and I started looking at television around Europe, I saw something very interesting and at the same time very sad. Most of the feeds of the images that people were putting on the TV were from the press conference in Washington. And I don’t understand why that happens,” said Moedas. “I think that Europe should be a little bit more assertive in terms of the way you communicate.”

Science Diplomacy

Another recurring theme of Moedas’ term as commissioner has been a commitment to science diplomacy.

On the same day as the Horizon Europe vote, MEPs approved an EU Council decision to renew the science and technology cooperation agreement with the Russian Federation, which began in 2000 and has since been renewed every five years.

The last renewal, on 14 March 2014, was just a few days before the formal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia, which the EU strongly opposes. But despite the EU’s implementation of economic sanctions and the poor state of the EU/Russian relationship, the science and technology agreement remains unchanged from the last time it was renewed.

“Let’s be clear about the separation here in between science and politics,” said Moedas. “We should always have bridges towards countries that do things that we don’t like or we don’t agree with,” he said.

“We are probably at the lower point in terms of our relationship with Russia, even in terms of science,” said Moedas. “Even if you go back to the Cold War, there was more contact then, unfortunately, than we have today.”

“If you start touching and changing the agreement, then you reopen the Pandora’s box,” said Moedas. “The annexation of Crimea, which I think is just unbelievable that happened in Europe in these days, but that is not a reason for me to say no to science contacts with Russia.”

“The Russian agreement is actually just to keep that door open,” said Moedas. “There’s not a lot of contact at the end of the day.”

The deal is not an association agreement – Russian scientists who want to participate in Horizon 2020 projects have to pay their own way. Ukraine meanwhile, does have an association agreement.

The article was edited on 24 April to mention that there are allowances for lower-income countries not associated to Horizon 2020.

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