Juncker aide says no to Brexit side deal for scientists

28 Jul 2016 | News

Chief of staff to EU Commission president Martin Selmayr tweets to say “No” to suggestion of a post-Brexit deal with freedom of movement for scientists, but not the rest of the population

A special freedom of movement deal for scientists will not be on the table when the UK negotiates its withdrawal from the EU, the chief of staff to the European Commission president has indicated.

In response to a question tweeted yesterday asking if the UK could retain access to European research funding post-Brexit by allowing freedom of movement for scientists, but not the rest of the population, Jean-Claude Juncker’s aide Martin Selmayr responded, “No”.

The suggestion that scientists should get a special exemption in forthcoming talks was made at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), held in Manchester this week. As the largest general scientific meeting in Europe, this was the first chance for scientists and policy makers from across the EU to debate the issue of what Brexit means for science since the UK referendum came down in favour of leaving the EU, just over one month ago.

Anne Glover, Vice-Principal External Affairs & Dean for Europe at Aberdeen University and the former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission, suggested that it could be a negotiating position during a session on Wednesday exploring how Europe’s scientific community should respond to Brexit.

“One thing we could start to explore…is could we get full membership of Horizon 2020 by the UK and agree to free movement of scientists?” Glover said. “It’s about pragmatically thinking, what is acceptable for the UK, where immigration is such a big issue.”

Immigration to the UK, particularly from poorer EU countries, was a key issue in the referendum campaign.

The idea did not receive universal support among delegates, with Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, saying a special status for researchers would be a tough sell at home and abroad. “I think it risks coming across as elitist,” he said.

No free lunches

Speaking at the opening ceremony the president of Euroscience Lauritz Holm-Nielsen said there should be work to ensure the UK remains a part of the European Research Area, but said, “You must be realistic, there are no free lunches.”

Holm-Nielson continued the theme at the Brexit debate on Wednesday, saying, “You cannot cherry-pick what deal you like.”

“You take the package or you don’t. [The British] will find prepared people across the negotiating table from them. It’s time to be humble.”

EU leaders have held a firm line that Britain will have to accept full free movement of all EU citizens if it wants to retain access to the single market.

Maintaining access to EU research programmes, they say, means buying in as an associate member, as other non-EU nations such as Norway and Switzerland do.

Uncertainty reigns

The uncertainty of Brexit for research preoccupied many minds at ESOF.

Luke Georghiou, ESOF vice-champion and vice-president for research and innovation at Manchester University said that if an MP pushed a leaflet through his letterbox with a pledge to overturn the referendum result, it would get his vote. “People are entitled to change their minds in a representative democracy,” he said.

In a joint session with EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas on Monday, the UK science minister Jo Johnson, tried to downplay Brexit worries, saying, “The EU is not the only game in town.”

“The UK is, and will continue to be, a hub of global activity,” he said. “I am absolutely clear that we will be more outward-looking than ever as a country. Leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe or turning our backs on the world.”

On the Brexit negotiations, he told delegates, “I recognise the demand for further clarity on these issues and I’m working intensively with colleagues across government to provide it as soon as practicable.”

Moedas again acknowledged scientists’ concerns about Brexit, but merely reiterated previous reassurances that nothing changes until exit negotiations are complete. “Horizon 2020 projects will continue to be evaluated based on merit and not on nationality,” Moedas said. “I urge the European scientific community to continue to choose their project partners on the basis of excellence.”

There was no opportunity in the Moedas/Johnson session for delegates to ask questions or express their concerns, with UK chief scientist Mark Walport who was in the chair, calling a very abrupt halt as soon as Johnson finished speaking.

Similarly, Johnson did not contribute to the Brexit debate on Wednesday. “I was astounded as to why our minister seems so disengaged,” said Glover. “He was invited to come, but he didn’t. I understand if it would have been difficult for him to speak – but he could have listened.”

Attendees also debated how academics had failed to convince the wider population of the benefits of EU membership. People working in research overwhelmingly supported remaining in the EU, with one poll, run by Nature, putting the figure at 83 per cent.

Curry said the researchers got drowned out by the verbal mud-slinging from both camps in the run up to the vote.

“We were hampered by our respect for truth and balance. But I think it’s fair to say we got roundly trashed. We have to do a much better job of making the research case to people in the future,” he said.

Moedas echoed this in his address saying, “The current lack of public and political engagement in fact-based decision-making even has people asking, have we have entered a "post-factual" era of democracy, in which the public identifies with populist rhetoric and decisions are made based on fears and assumptions, because people feel science and politics have left them behind?”

Moedas said politicians can explain the net benefits of migration and he himself has done so many times, but he added, “How does that help someone who cannot get a doctor's appointment?”

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