Lukewarm letter from Sunak offers little clarity over UK’s future in Horizon Europe

25 Apr 2023 | News

London and Brussels are still to agree on terms for the UK to join the €95.5B research programme and in response to pleas from researchers, the prime minister sends a mixed message on getting association over the line

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says his ‘preference’ is for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe, but only on terms that are good for researchers, businesses and taxpayers. Photo: Number 10 / Flickr

A lukewarm reply to a letter from 15 Nobel laureates urging the UK government to join Horizon Europe appears to confirm concerns voiced at a hearing in the House of Commons science committee last week that prime minister Rishi Sunak is not fully committed to an association deal with the EU.

Responding six weeks after receiving the letter, Sunak said his “preference” is for association negotiations to be concluded “successfully”, but that the terms “need to be on the basis of a good deal for our researchers, businesses and taxpayers.”

The foot dragging is frustrating researchers in the UK who have been urging the government to speed up the association talks with the EU, after Sunak and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen signed the Windsor framework, ending a high-level political row over the status of Northern Ireland in the EU single market.

One of the signatories of the letter to Sunak, Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, says Sunak is not really listening to researchers. “I think the prime minister might be dragging his feet, if I can be frank about it,” Nurse told MPs in the science committee.

The committee was taking evidence from scientists less than two weeks after the UK government announced ‘Plan B’, the £14.6 billion Pioneer research programme it will fall back on if Horizon Europe talks between Brussels and London fail.

In his reply to the letter from the Nobel laureates, Sunak stressed once more that the UK would pursue Pioneer if the terms of Horizon Europe association are not “fair and appropriate”.

“If it is required, Pioneer will ensure that the UK continues to attract the top talent, lead multilateral collaborations and has access to world class research infrastructures,” Sunak wrote in the letter dated 14 April, which has now been published on the UK parliament website.

But, Nurse told MPs, the launch of the Pioneer plan is sending mixed messages, both to the EU and to researchers in the UK, casting doubts about the government’s commitment to getting a deal done with Brussels.

The disagreement over Northern Ireland was seen as the last obstacle for the UK joining Horizon Europe, but later the UK government started pointing to outstanding issues, such as its financial contribution to the EU research programme, as a reason to refrain from a quick deal. The EU has confirmed the UK will not be required to pay for the two years it has been locked out of the programme.

But the terms the UK is seeking are still unclear. Sunak’s letter echoed a statement by the UK secretary of state at the department for science, innovation and technology Michelle Donelan after she visited Brussels to meet with EU commissioner for research and innovation Mariya Gabriel. Donelan said the UK government will move forward with Plan B if “unable to reach the right terms” for association.

It is unclear how the negotiations will proceed in the coming weeks and months and what terms the UK government will be seeking. The government has recently announced that Donelan will soon go on maternity leave and she will be replaced by Chloe Smith, adding further uncertainty around the negotiations with Brussels.

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