Brussels stands firm on plan to limit foreign access to ‘sensitive’ R&D projects

24 May 2021 | News

Revised plan maintains exclusions for non-EU countries in projects that touch on “sensitive Union assets”

Thierry Breton, EU's Commissioner for the internal market, is looking for ways to secure the bloc's technology autonomy. Photo: European Commission.

The European Commission is standing firm on its plan to exclude researchers from the UK, Israel and other non-EU countries from “sensitive” parts of the bloc’s upcoming €95.5 billion research programme.

In a note issued to member states, dated May 19, the Commission reiterates the need to restrict access to some of its major quantum and space projects.

The proposed restrictions, which are broader than those seen in previous seven-year cycles of R&D funding, will cover projects that touch on “sensitive Union assets”, such as the Galileo and Copernicus satellites, “the disruption of which would have a significant impact for the EU as a result of the failure to maintain those functions,” the note says.

However the plan, which has been revised following a backlash from member states, presents a smaller list of restricted areas than initially proposed several months ago.

The Commission now wants to limit participation of non-EU entities in 49 actions in the main 2021/22 Horizon work programme, which sets out funding priorities and competitions for the first year of the bloc’s new seven-year science scheme.

This figure has been reduced from an initial longer list of 77 actions and represents 4.2% of the actions in this work programme and less than 3.1% of the total 21/22 budget of Horizon Europe, the note explains.

Curbs affect Israel, UK and Switzerland

The Commission points to a new legal basis in Horizon Europe, Article 22(5), that foresees the possibility to limit the participation of entities established in non-EU countries that that pay to affiliate to Horizon Europe.

The proposed curbs would leave countries like Israel with less privileged access to Horizon Europe than it have had in past R&D programmes. For the UK, too, which formally left the bloc at the end of last year, the move would see a big downgrade of its role in key EU projects. Norway and Iceland, two countries inside the European Economic Area, also face exclusion from a number of space research areas, the note says.

Key Commission officials believe exclusions are necessary so the EU can protect its research base in rapidly developing fields. But according to one non-EU official who has seen the new Commission note, “It will be really difficult for research teams to assess which country is eligible for what.” The whole debate, which has dragged on for months, has repeatedly delayed the launch of Horizon Europe calls.

The Commission document stresses that the vast majority of the programme will be open to EU neighbours and the rich, democratic “like-minded” countries.

“The default approach… is of openness to collaboration with researchers and research organisations from all over the world.

“Nevertheless, the Horizon Europe regulation provides a greater emphasis than its predecessors on the pursuit of reciprocity with third country partners and on the protection of EU assets, interests, autonomy and security,” the note adds.

Door partly open?

The Commission dangles the possibility that it may still permit the participation of close partners in projects deemed sensitive, provided specific criteria can be met.

“The starting point should be that entities established in associated countries should not be eligible unless certain conditions are met by the associated country,” says the note, which is now being studied by member states.

Here, the note talks about EU officials needing “confirmation that such participation would not present a risk to the Union’s strategic assets, interests, autonomy and security”. Also talked about is the need to guarantee that EU entities will have access to equivalent programmes in non-EU countries, as well as an obligation for non-EU officials “to report on and consult the Commission on any possible cases of planned foreign investment or takeovers by non-eligible entities of enterprises”.

This part of the proposal is already sparking plenty of debate among EU diplomats, with some doubtful as to whether the Commission has a legal mandate to go this far. Member state representatives are due to meet May 26 to discuss their response to the proposal.

Autonomy faces obstacles

Several diplomats said there is disagreement within the Commission over how far to push an autonomy agenda for Horizon Europe, with the bloc’s internal market commissioner Thierry Breton suspected of being on the side of more limits, and a camp led by competition and digital chief Margrethe Vestager arguing for more openness.

In a broad policy document published last week, which sets out the EU vision on global science collaboration, the bloc said it would pursue “nuanced and modulated” rules of engagement with foreign countries in the future based on “levels of reciprocity, a level playing field, and the respect for fundamental rights and shared values,” while protecting EU-funded research from those seeking to abuse the system.

The shift reflects the rising concern among political leaders in Europe over intellectual property theft and the authoritarian use of technologies by China and other countries.

But critics warn against a creeping EU protectionism that could damage cooperation with longstanding partners. A group of concerned member states, led by Germany, has previously written to the Commission, arguing that its proposal to exclude close EU partners from projects “would result in mistrust among the scientific community and minimise the added value of Horizon Europe for the EU significantly”.

German MEP Niklas Nienass, spokesman on space for the European Parliament’s Greens group, told Science|Business in March that the proposed curbs go too far. “To exclude these countries right across quantum and space projects would be insane,” he said. Quantum scientists across Europe have also come out strongly against the proposed curbs for non-EU scientists.

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