Hope that the way will be cleared for UK Horizon Europe association, as parliament votes on Windsor framework

21 Mar 2023 | News

The head of a leading European university network has urged the EU and UK to work to get association done ‘ASAP’, ahead of a vote on trade relationships in Northern Ireland tomorrow

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a visit to Northern Ireland last month. Photo: Number 10 / Flickr

Tomorrow’s vote on the Windsor framework in the UK parliament marks a crucial step on the country’s potential path to associating to Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5 billion research and innovation programme. 

With the opposition Labour party backing the framework, it will be voted through, even though some on the right wing of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative party may vote against, and the fact that Jeffrey Donaldson, head of Northern Irish unionist party, the DUP, has said the party will vote against the deal saying, “there remain key areas of concern which require further clarification, re-working and change.” 

The vote should leave the government with a relatively clear run at agreeing association, after months of protracted negotiations with the EU. 

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of university research network LERU, said that while the DUP’s rejection would be “regretful”, the bigger picture for the UK and European scientific communities is getting association to Horizon Europe done. 

“In case the [Windsor framework] is approved, I really hope that work on association can be started ASAP and both [the UK and the EU] can come together and show sufficient flexibility and positiveness to agree to association,” he said. 

“We really should have the UK on board for the second half of the programme,” he added. The seven-year Horizon Europe framework programme began in 2021 and will run until the end of 2027. 

The EU has been blocking UK association over the disagreement on the post-Brexit trade deal under which Northern Ireland retained its status as part of the EU single market, in effect creating a customs border with the rest of the UK. Sunak met European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier this month when they agreed the Windsor framework in principle.

On announcing the deal, von der Leyen said she was “happy to start immediately” on the Horizon Europe association agreement. 

But things have been quieter on the UK side, leading some to doubt whether Sunak is aiming for association at all. 

Greg Clark, a Conservative MP who is chair of the House of Commons science committee, urged the UK and EU to “commence and conclude” association talks without delay, in a statement released last week

However, he added negotiations must address “what value remains to the UK in the remaining years of the programme”. This is an indication that the UK might try to renegotiate downwards the fee it will pay for Horizon Europe association after missing out on the first half of the programme, complicating association talks.

Meanwhile MEP Christian Ehler, a key voice on science policy in the European parliament, has invited representatives of the UK research sector to Brussels to discuss association this week. 

The European Council today voted through key elements of the Windsor framework, although legislation on it must still be officially adopted by the Parliament and Council. 

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