Anxiety grows over a lengthening delay in formalising UK membership in Horizon Europe

07 Oct 2021 | News

"Time is running out”, warned an EU representative, after Commissioner appeared to imply a link between association and the stand-off over Northern Ireland

Mariya Gabriel, Research Commissioner. Photo: European Union

Supporters of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe are voicing mounting concern that a deal ensuring continued collaboration between UK and EU researchers has yet to be finalised, and are urging faster action.

Science|Business has spoken to two European Union member state representatives who fear that unless progress is made soon, a frustrated UK government could decide to ditch association altogether, depriving the EU research programme of a key scientific partner. There’s no official suggestion of that yet from London, and any such move would cause a revolt among UK organisations dependent on EU research funding. But as with the 2016-2020 Brexit negotiations, so with Horizon talks the threat of a divorce by one side or the other has been an abiding worry.

“Time is running out,” said one member state representative, speaking anonymously because of the delicacy of the situation.

UK universities are also fretting about a seeming hold-up to a final agreement. “I think we all need to encourage the Commission to speed up the process, so that we can give certainty to researchers across Europe that they can continue to collaborate with confidence,” said Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International. “Delay damages us all.”

And in a surprise move, UK Research and Innovation today announced it will pay UK applicants £5,000 to apply to the  EU’s programme, under a temporary UK-EU provision that allows UK applicants to continue while the formal government-to-government discussions continue.  

London and Brussels agreed in broad terms to association in December 2020 as part of the Brexit deal. But the final sign-off has not yet been made.

EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel last week appeared to imply a link between Horizon Europe negotiations and the wider dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, raising fears that research cooperation could become a victim of deteriorating relations between the EU and UK. Some in Brussels also express concern that UK association will not be top of the agenda for France when it takes over the EU presidency at the start of 2022 - meaning time is of the essence.

Concerns over a “seeming delay” to Horizon association, plus Copernicus and Euratom, were raised by the UK in June during a meeting of the UK-EU Partnership Council, the joint body that oversees implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which sets the terms of post-Brexit relations.

The UK called for the specialised committee dealing with association to “pick this matter up quickly and to drive forward progress”.

But since then, the committee still has not met, and there are no meetings planned, despite other specialised committees – on fisheries, energy and social security, for example – having already convened. However, association could also be formalised just by written agreement, without a meeting needing to take place.

On 27 September, commissioner Gabriel appeared to suggest that Horizon Europe association was linked to the row between Brussels and London over Northern Ireland.

“The United Kingdom, as you all know, will be associated via a cooperation protocol, and we’re winding up our internal procedures to be able to adapt the protocol as quickly as possible, and the questions regarding the Northern Irish protocol are also going to be dealt with, and we hope that our cooperation will be...based on reciprocity,” she told MEPs.

A Commission spokesman declined to comment on Gabriel’s meaning. “Our internal procedures are ongoing,” he said.

The UK says it wants to sign as soon as possible. “The UK stands ready to formalise at the earliest opportunity our association to Horizon Europe, Copernicus, Euratom R&T and ITER, as agreed by the UK and the EU last year in our joint declaration,” a UK official said in a statement.

“We’re raring to go ahead with association, and my understanding is that the British Government is ready to sign the articles – and to make the financial contribution to the programme that comes with that,” said Universities UK’s Stern. 

The Commission has already explicitly used Horizon Europe as a bargaining chip in broader talks with Switzerland. After Bern pulled out of long-running talks to reformulate its relationship with Brussels in May, Horizon Europe negotiations have been on ice, with the Commission stressing that association will depend on relations with Switzerland “as a whole”.

Meanwhile, broader relations between Brussels and London have frayed further as the UK demands a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which allows the region to stay inside the EU’s single market, avoiding a peace-threatening hard border on the island.

At the Conservative Party conference on 4 October, David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, again warned that the protocol “needs to change”, but stopped short of triggering article 16, an emergency brake that allows either side to take unilateral action if suffering “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” as a result of the arrangements.

If association remains unformalised, UK researchers can continue to apply for Horizon Europe grants, but the crunch point comes when grant agreements need to be signed. For the first round of Horizon Europe calls made in June this year, this point is still some months off, with grant agreements signings set for March 2022 onwards.

The uncertainty over association is already prompting some UK academics to seek advice from their universities over how and whether to apply.

Official advice is that UK researchers should continue to apply anyway, and there is still confidence in the sector that association will ultimately happen. “The EU is still in the process of formalising the UK’s association. But UK-based applicants can begin applying straight away. You do not need to wait for the EU to formalise association,” according to advice from UK Research and Innovation.

However, on 7 October, UK Research and Innovation announced a new £5,000 grant to give UK researchers “the resources needed to collaborate with EU organisations and to develop a proposal” for Horizon Europe.

It is designed to help work up “feasibility studies, application advice and training, partnership building, and dedicated time to take forward an application,” the funding agency said.

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