19 Jan 2017   |   News

Scientists discover reasons for hope (but mostly despair) in May’s big Brexit speech

Despite some warm words on research collaboration, the British prime minister’s uncompromising stance on immigration, and eagerness to escape the EU’s legal remit, threatens UK participation in future EU research programmes

British prime minister Theresa May has pledged a clean break with the EU and the single market but signalled that the UK will “welcome agreement” on continuing research collaboration with Europe, in her fullest account yet of her aims in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

“There may be some specific EU programmes in which we might want to participate,” May said in a long-awaited address on Tuesday, in which notably, she did not rule out all future budget contributions to the EU, leaving open the possibility of the UK paying for access to future research programmes.

Post-Brexit, the UK must be a country that “looks to the future” and is “one of the best places in the world for science and innovation,” said May. “So we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.”

May’s words were interpreted by some as an indication that she will seek to maintain access to EU research in upcoming talks.

There is reason for optimism, said Thomas Jorgensen, European University Association’s senior policy coordinator and main staff expert on Brexit.

“May’s attention to [research] proves that the UK is aware that these collaborations cannot be replaced and gives hope that Brexit will not damage ties long-established through generations of exchange and hard work,” he said.

Similarly, David Price, vice provost for research at University College London, said he, “Welcomed the prime minister's indication that she would like to see continuing research collaboration between Europe and the UK.”

However, May also laid out the clear target to reject, “partial membership, associate membership, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out,” saying, “We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.”

A big concern for UK universities and science-based companies is the flow of expertise into the UK. While saying, “We will continue to attract the brightest and best to work and study – openness to international talent must remain one of this country’s most distinctive assets,” the prime minister’s speech made it clear she intends to take control of immigration into the UK from the EU27.

Because of these words, most scientists were not backing down from the equation that Brexit equals calamity for research. May might have said that, “June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world” but many scientists are struggling to see it any other way.

“I am very glad that she highlighted the value of scientific collaboration, but she said nothing to dispel my concern that she and her government have underestimated the complexities and challenges of Brexit,” said Anne Glover, vice-principal of external affairs and dean for Europe at Aberdeen University. “Even a quick examination of the various models of participation in Horizon 2020 would reveal that without agreeing to free movement of EU citizens, we will not be able to satisfy the ambition for full engagement.”

Without compromises on immigration, it is vanishingly hard to make a case for the UK retaining its great links to EU research, agreed Mike Galsworthy, head of the pressure group Scientists for EU.

“It’s not realistic we can get a deal without freedom of movement – that would be an insult to Norway and Switzerland, which live by this principle in their deals with the EU,” he said. “We need to show some good intentions, rather than looking like we’re out to grab what we can, otherwise the other countries will get disenchanted.”

The UK could still participate in EU research programmes as a non-EU country, observed Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of The Guild of European Research Intensive Universities. “But it would be likely to lead to sharply reduced participation, as the example of Switzerland has shown,” he noted.

Switzerland, the most active non-EU participant in EU research projects, was locked out of Horizon 2020 when it voted in a 2014 referendum to implement immigration quotas – a violation of the EU’s principle of free movement of people. It got back into the programme in December, after it put together a deal which stipulates job vacancies are advertised first in Switzerland before any hiring from abroad.

The UK could have viewed this as a positive example of the kind of deal it can do with the EU, said Galsworthy. “It goes to show you can make modifications to freedom of movement. It is adaptable. That’s something I hoped we’d look at before ruling ourselves out of the single market in one go,” he said.  

Galsworthy feels May’s tough talk risks burning up good will before what promises to be a hugely complex, drawn-out and possibly bitter negotiation, which is expected to get underway after the UK government triggers Article 50 to start the process in March. “One of the things May could say right now to defuse some tension – and create a good feeling with negotiating partners – is that European science is world-leading, thanks in great part to the EU,” Galsworthy said.

EU jurisdiction

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, pointed out that it would be hard for the UK to participate in EU research in any capacity following May’s pledge to get out from under the legal remit of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

“Paying into the Framework programmes also means being under control of, and having contracts with, the European Commission, and ultimately the jurisdiction of the ECJ,” said Deketelaere.

It is also far from certain whether other EU countries would allow the UK back into its research programme, with several taking a hard line against Britain to send a message to other member states that might consider leaving.

The course upon which the UK government is embarked would also mean leaving the unified European patent system, whose members accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

“Ultimately it will depend on what the settlement is between the UK and EU - it is quite possible the unitary patent and unified patent court will include the UK for at least a transition period,” said Luke McDonagh, a lecturer in the law school at City University London.

Being bound by EU patent law, which the UK signed up to in November, against the expectations of many experts, might not provoke a strong reaction in Britain, he suggests.    

“If the UK is willing to accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ in the relatively apolitical and uncontroversial area of patent law that might be a way the UK could continue to participate in the patent system as part of the final settlement,” McDonagh said.

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