06 Feb 2020   |   News

Discussions on opening Horizon Europe to other countries to re-start next week

Member states will begin setting out rules on extending EU research programme internationally

Signe Ratso, European Commission's deputy director general for research and innovation. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

The next steps towards opening up the EU’s massive R&D programme to other countries in the world will begin next week, a senior European Commission official said on Monday.

Speaking at a Science|Business conference in Brussels, Signe Ratso, deputy director general for research and innovation, said EU member state officials are to meet on February 10 to re-start discussions on international cooperation, including access to the proposed €94.1 billion Horizon Europe programme.

Rules of access for non-EU countries to Horizon Europe are “still to be agreed at the inter-institutional level, along with provisions related to synergies [with other EU programmes],” Ratso said.

The overall EU budget for 2021-2027 still needs to be agreed by member states, which has delayed action on rules for EU research association.

A new commission proposal for Horizon Europe is to extend associate membership – which offers the best entry terms for non-EU countries – to those outside the European Economic Area and the Enlargement and European Neighbourhood countries, which are currently eligible for association status.

Now, countries anywhere in the world with a developed research and development capacity are being offered the chance to pay in and collaborate with the EU, under a reform of the current Horizon 2020 programme.

Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea have expressed interest in associate membership of the successor Horizon Europe programme starting in 2021, Ratso, who is the commission’s chief negotiator for Horizon talks with non-EU countries, said. That would mean their researchers could obtain Horizon funding, as part of EU research consortia.

The countries have to fulfil EU “like-mindedness” criteria, such as having democratic institutions that protect intellectual property rights, Ratso said.

“These are not the only new countries potentially eligible for associate membership, but they are the ones that have been proactive about joining,” said Ratso. Exploratory talks with interested countries will start in earnest once EU leaders agree on the terms for international cooperation.

The association process with non-EU countries needs to be completed by the autumn of 2021, which is the deadline for the first round of Horizon Europe funding calls.

“We will need association agreements to produce legal effects either through entry into force or provisional application by third quarter 2021,” Ratso said.

The European Parliament and member states will now have to decide on the terms for Horizon membership. One possibility is that non-EU countries may have “partial” association to specific parts, or pillars of the programme, which are in basic science, global challenge research, and innovation. Some MEPs want to block non-EU countries from joining the third pillar, which will provide funding for small innovative companies.

“We can’t pre-empt anything on behalf of the EU countries,” said Ratso. There are different views on this issue held by the different member states and the European Parliament. “Some will be interested in closing the research gap in Europe, for instance. This will leave its mark on discussions,” she said.

Countries like Germany and the Netherlands will approach the negotiating table with different priorities from countries such as Estonia and Lithuania, said Jaak Aaviksoo, rector of Tallinn University of Technology. 

“Opening up to the world, we like that, but not if it leads to more concentration of excellence and academia,” he said. “In the US, Montana is very different from Massachusetts. It’s a similar debate in Europe; we don’t want Estonia to be so different from Massachusetts. Let’s make Europe more open, but let’s be careful about the risk.”

The possibility of being blocked from competing for EU innovation grants has come as a major surprise to countries like Israel and Switzerland, which both currently enjoy full access to EU research.

Making the case for continued unconstrained access for Israel was Joseph Klafter, senior adviser to the Council of Higher Education of Israel. “It’s clear to everyone here that science should not have borders,” he said. “What we bring to the table for the EU is our long success in entrepreneurship and innovation.”

In exchange for granting a country associate status, the commission wants to see reciprocal access for EU27 researchers. This requirement “may be different in different cases,” Ratso said.

Currently, 16 countries, including Switzerland, Israel, Iceland and Tunisia, are associated to the existing R&D programme, Horizon 2020.

That allows their researchers to compete for EU funding on the same footing as EU researchers, on condition that their governments make a payment, based on the size of their gross domestic product, into a central EU money pot to help pay for the programme.

But for Horizon Europe, the commission has said it wants to change the formula so a country’s association fee reflects the money its researchers take out of the programme. Ratso said the commission is still discussing the details of how that would work in practice.

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