The UK Horizon deal: A timeline of the twists and turns that got us here

08 Sep 2023 | News

Now that science relations between EU and UK are on the mend, Europe’s science community can breathe a deep sigh of relief. But how did we get here? And what do the science lobbies think of it?

If patience rewards the good, then British researchers must be feeling pretty virtuous by now.

It has taken seven – 7, count them – years to get from Brexit to a firm deal on the UK joining the EU’s flagship research programme. And now, following confirmation September 7th from both Brussels and London that a deal is agreed, UK researchers and entrepreneurs can gear up their formerly efficient machinery to garner EU grants directly from Brussels starting January 1.

In this timeline, we look back in the pages of Science|Business on the (almost) never-ending story of how the UK went from the 2016 Brexit vote, then tried to go it alone, spent years locked out over a political dispute and eventually worked its way back to being an associated member of the programme after several months of negotiations.

Now that the deal is done, scientific and academic associations across Europe have been firing off statements to the press praising the deal, praising the negotiators – and, from the tone of some of them, praising themselves for fighting the good fight. We have included many of these statements throughout our news coverage of the deal. But here, we also add some extra comments. We welcome more submissions, at [email protected].

2016: The vote that split a nation

The news that UK citizens had voted to leave the European Union in June 2016 immediately set alarm bells ringing in the research world. Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, said at the time that the result was “a poor outcome” for research. “British scientists will have to work hard in the future to counter the isolationism of Brexit if our science is to continue to thrive,” he said.

2020/2021: Brexit kicks in, Horizon membership in the deal

After years of back and forth negotiations, the UK finally achieved Brexit on 1 January 2021 after a one-year grace period in which many last-minute issues were hastily tackled. The deal that the UK struck with the EU, known as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), included in it an agreement that UK researchers would be allowed to participate in Horizon Europe. The exact terms of this participation were not all agreed.

UK prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson, welcomed the deal. “It means certainty for our scientists,” he said. “They will be able to continue to work together on great collective projects. Although we want the UK to be a science superpower, we also want to be a collaborative science superpower.”

2021: Gabriel admits UK association hold up tied to Northern Ireland Protocol

With a deal on the table and Horizon Europe officially up and running, it seemed UK’s association was a mere signature away.

But months went by and by September 2021, it was clear there was something big holding up the deal officially kicking in. That’s when the EU research commissioner at the time, Mariya Gabriel, came out and said it: further diplomatic efforts are needed to clear political disagreements before the UK and Switzerland can finalise Horizon Europe association.

The disagreement? The UK had threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and temporarily suspend parts of the trade deal it signed with the EU in December. To stop the UK from causing havoc, the Commission needed all the bargaining chips it could get. Access to Horizon Europe became one of them.

2021: UK safety net

With Horizon Europe association tied to broader political issues, it started to become clear the deadlock might be there to stay.

But despite the uncertainty, UK scientists, who had been promised equal access to Horizon Europe, kept applying for EU funding. This was about to turn into a problem: though they were still winning grant awards, actually getting hold of the EU cash was another matter – because the UK still wasn’t an official Horizon member.

Rushing to the rescue, the UK promised backstop funding to guarantee they get paid, using contingency plans which luckily had been drawn up ahead of 2020 in case of a no-deal Brexit. Uncertainty continued to reign, but at least for now scientists would get paid.

2022: UK plays tough

In early June last year, then-science minister George Freeman headed to Brussels to make a last minute attempt to salvage the UK’s Horizon Europe deal.

It had been a year and a half since it was agreed under the TCA, but the UK still wasn’t being let in. In a room full of research policy heavyweights in Brussels, Freeman warned “if the phone doesn’t ring in autumn, we’ll have to go.”

The phone didn’t ring, and Freeman was soon out of a job after Boris Johnson’s resignation as prime minister.

But the threats didn’t stop. On her campaign trail to become the next UK prime minister, Liz Truss, at the time serving as foreign secretary, began legal proceedings against the EU for blocking UK access to Horizon Europe.

Mere weeks later, Truss won the Tory leadership race and the court case didn’t amount to anything. Politics trumps science once again.

2023: announcing Plan P

By 2023, the chances of the UK joining Horizon weren’t looking good. The UK wanted a plan B, and so they concocted one. In April, the government announced £14.6 billion that would have gone to Horizon Europe would instead be invested in a new Pioneer programme to support science, research, technology and innovation, if the UK is not able to secure a Horizon association deal on “fair and appropriate terms.”

“We must ensure we have an ambitious alternative ready to go should we need it,” UK science and technology minister Michelle Donelan said at the time.

2023: Northern Ireland deal opens door to Horizon Europe

With the UK now onto prime minister number four since the fateful Brexit vote, talks of Horizon Europe association were still frustratingly ‘ongoing’, held up by the Northern Ireland Protocol issue. But then, along came Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework deal to solve the problem, and suddenly UK association was very much back on the table.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said after the agreement that work on associating the UK to the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme would start “immediately”.

2023: Let’s talk about money

That immediacy never came about, though, as the two sides entered yet another bickering war, this time about how much the UK should pay to associate to Horizon Europe after missing out on the first few years of the programme. Under the EU’s seven-year budget cycle, Horizon Europe started in 2021.

This led the Commission to promise that the UK will not pay full price. But the UK government still was not happy and wanted to ensure that it only joined on the best possible terms.

2023: The deal that kind of wasn’t

In early July this year there was a flurry of activity in the research community after news publication Politico reported a deal between Brussels and London over association.

But Brussels’ sources quickly denied the rumours and the frenzy died down. In hindsight, this was likely the initial stages in the UK and EU resolving their spat over association costs, although it was still a bit short of the “draft deal” reported in the media.

2023: A deal is done

With the summer drawing to a close and bureaucrats in Brussels returning to work, the news broke this week that a deal had been done, that the question of association costs and risks had been resolved, and the UK was set to associate to Horizon Europe from January 2024.

The reaction from the research community was one of joy and relief, although some have warned that there will be much work to do before things are really “back to normal”.

A summary of how the research community reacted to the deal

The UK research community breathed a sigh of relief when the news was announced.

Sean Rowlands, senior policy officer at The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities said: “Researchers in the UK and across Europe have not lost touch, they have continued to collaborate and are still in a good position to make up lost ground and engage fruitfully with European programmes.

“At the same time, The Guild strongly believes that any return to normality must include full association of Switzerland to Horizon Europe as soon as possible.”

Matthew Freeman, Head of Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, said: “This news will make it much easier for those of us who spend time trying to recruit the best scientists from around the world to come to Britain.”

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, said EU funding is crucial to cancer research. “It is essential that the European Commission, the UK Government and UK research funders work with urgency to rebuild the strong position the UK occupied in the Horizon programme, and get funds and global collaboration flowing again into our research institutions.”

Ludovic Thilly, Executive Board Chair of the Coimbra Group said: “Given its place among scientific nations, it is also an important step that the UK can soon take part in the discussions about the next framework programme and post-2027 research priorities.”

Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council, said the decision would strengthen research in the UK and the EU. “At the ERC, we look forward to welcoming back researchers based in the UK, after the trying last few years. They have been sorely missed, and will now be able to participate again as from our 2024 grant competitions.”

Scottish National Party MP Alyn Smith welcomed the news, but regrets that an agreement took so long. “This should have been built until the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and the drift and the chill that we’ve seen since is really pretty damaging to the real economy and the excellent research we do in Scotland.”

He added: “I’m adamant that getting back into the EU in all its parts, in all its programmes, not least for freedom of movement for academics who are involved in this stuff, is vital.”

As well as rejoining Horizon, the UK will be able to access the Copernicus European climate monitoring programme as an associate. Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Participating in Copernicus will enable the UK space sector to continue to play a significant role in the development of critical missions that will enable us to monitor our planet more effectively and lead a global effort through the use of satellite data to find new solutions to the urgent challenge of climate change.”

The UK decided against rejoining the EU’s nuclear power programme Euratom, choosing instead to pursue its own domestic strategy, to which it committed £650 million.

UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) CEO Sir Ian Chapman said: “UKAEA welcomes the clarity about our future relationship with the Euratom Research and Training programme which provides the certainty needed by the sector.

“The government’s commitment to an ambitious alternative R&D programme will be hugely important in sustaining the UK’s position as a leader in fusion R&D as well as developing an industrial capability to deliver future fusion power plants.”

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