It’s official: UK to associate to Horizon Europe

07 Sep 2023 | News

After multiple false dawns, London and Brussels have finally agreed a deal to allow the UK to rejoin. The UK will also join the Copernicus space programme, but is out of Euratom and the ITER fusion project

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

The UK government and European Commission have have struck a deal to allow the country to associate to Horizon Europe after more than two and a half years of delay.

This morning they released a joint statement that will have UK and EU scientists breathing a sigh of relief after being stuck in limbo since 2021.

“The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point,” said Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in a statement. “We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”

The deal means that UK scientists will now be able to receive European Research Council grants and coordinate academic-industrial consortia in the Framework programme.

Up to now, they have been forced to rely on UK equivalent grants and funding instead of being seamlessly integrated into Horizon Europe.

While UK academics have still been able to join consortia under the industrially-focused Pillar 2 of the programme – the biggest part by value – uncertainty about the future meant that UK participation in the programme halved, raising fears that UK scientists were being forced out of European academic networks built up over decades.

UK-based ERC grant winners have faced an agonising choice over whether to move to the EU to keep their awards, or stay and settle for a UK equivalent scheme.

Deal done

After reports a deal had been struck yesterday evening, London and Brussels made it official at 7am today.

It confirms the UK will be able to fully participate from 1 January 2024 in the 2024 work programme – a list of the projects Horizon Europe will fund that year - and onward, including 2024 calls that open this year.

For calls under the 2023 work programme, however, UK researchers will still have to use UK backup guarantee scheme to fund their participation in any Horizon projects. The agreement is only until the end of Horizon Europe in 2027.

A long and winding road

It’s been a tortuous process getting here, with scientists having their hopes raised – then dashed – multiple times.

Horizon association was agreed – at least in theory - at the end of 2020, when London and Brussels signed the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which set the terms of post-Brexit relations. All it required was a stroke of the pen from both sides to make it official.

But in 2021, relations soured over the issue of Northern Ireland. The UK government threatened to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a deal designed to avoid customs checks on the island of Ireland, in order to preserve peace.

In autumn of 2021, it became clear that the European Commission was refusing to sign off association. Eventually the then research commissioner Mariya Gabriel admitted that this was because of the unresolved Northern Ireland dispute.

Horizon association then became a political hostage to this wider split, until February this year, when the Windsor Framework smoothed over the Northern Ireland issue.

But association talks dragged on even longer, as the UK wanted assurances it would not suffer big financial losses from joining so late in the day. London was concerned that there was no good correction mechanism if it put in far more than it gets out of the programme, so the haggling continued.

Details emerge

Today’s announcement doesn’t make explicit how negotiators squared that circle. But it does say that the UK and EU agreed a “temporary and automatic mechanism to address any risk of critical underperformance by the UK” if the country puts in 16% more than its scientists win in grants.

The UK will pay in “almost €2.6 billion” a year for its participation, the announcement confirms.

It also confirms that the UK will remain part of the EU’s Copernicus satellite system, despite fears on the UK side that the country had already missed big calls under the system.

“The UK’s association to Copernicus comes at a crucial moment, where the Copernicus space infrastructure and its information services will evolve further and their contribution to understanding and acting on environmental and climate change related challenges is more important than ever,” according to the UK’s announcement.

ITER no more

However, the fly in the ointment is that the UK is not going to rejoin Euratom, and is therefore out of ITER, the multi-billion euro global collaborative project in the south of France to build a prototype fusion reactor.

“The UK has decided not to pursue its association to Euratom and Fusion4Energy / ITER,” according to a Commission question and answer factsheet about the agreement. “This decision is guided by the UK's assessment that its industry's long absence from Euratom and F4E/ITER programmes cannot be reversed.”

The UK’s own statement says nothing about its future relationship with ITER, but confirms it will not rejoin Euratom.

“In line with the preferences of the UK fusion sector, the UK has decided to pursue a domestic fusion energy strategy instead of associating to the EU’s Euratom programme," the statement reads. "This will involve close international collaboration, including with European partners, and a new, cutting-edge alternative programme, backed by up to £650m to 2027. It will ensure UK taxpayer funding is spent in the UK’s best interests.”

The association deal itself will also need to be ratified by member states through the Council of the EU.

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