Canada association raises questions over who controls Horizon Europe

28 Nov 2023 | News

Countries from outside the EU have no formal power in shaping the framework programme, and risk exclusion from sensitive calls. As they make up an ever-bigger part of Horizon, that could generate political tensions

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeauat an EU-Canada summit in November 2023. Photo: Christophe Licoppe / European Union

Last week, Canada became the latest non-European country to announce it will join Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95 billion research and innovation programme.

New Zealand has already joined, and the arrival of the Canadians is the latest success for the European Commission, which has opened the programme up to geographically distant, democratic science powers. South Korea and Japan are also in talks to take part.

It means that Horizon Europe, and future framework programmes, are becoming less EU-centric, and increasingly resemble a kind of global vehicle for research collaboration.

It is “the greatest research and innovation mechanism in the world right now,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when announcing the deal last week.

But when push comes to shove, control over the programme still rests ultimately with EU member states and the Commission. Associated countries can participate in the committees that design work programmes – the list of calls that make up the meat of Horizon – but do not get to vote in any contested decisions.

With countries outside the EU contributing a growing slice of the Horizon budget, that could ultimately cause friction. This fear of a lack of control, despite paying into the budget, is one of the issues thought to be holding up agreement from the Japanese government.

For Canada, “association to ‘the world’s greatest research programme’ is of course attractive, and at the moment, the trade-offs work,” said Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy coordination and foresight at the European University Association.

“However, there is a point where you pay for a lot for things you don’t have much of a say over.”

Ever since the Commission announced that it would open Horizon Europe up to far-flung countries, Jørgensen has been warning that an influx of associated countries could make the programme “off balance” unless carefully handled.

And the problem has been exacerbated by Brexit. Having had voting rights as an EU member state, the UK now joins Canada and New Zealand as an associated country. As part of a deal struck in September, London will contribute an estimated €2.6 billion annually for access to Horizon and the Copernicus space programme.

Switzerland, which recently started exploratory talks to join after a long hiatus, would also participate as an associated country. Innovation leader Israel, meanwhile, is also associated. However, unlike the UK and Canada, both countries are long used to associated status, so it may be less politically fraught.

Political Horizon

This problem of taxation without representation in Horizon Europe will only grow more acute, argues Jørgensen, if the framework programme becomes more “Europe first,” and focused on the EU’s industrial and technological needs, in an era of competition with China and the US.

“If you have a strategic research programme, it’s difficult to say that third countries have a say,” he points out.

One flashpoint has been the newly enshrined ability of the EU to exclude non-EU countries from sensitive projects. In 2021, the Commission caused uproar among scientists by proposing to exclude the UK, Switzerland and Israel from certain quantum and space calls in the name of protecting the EU’s research base.

When they struck a deal in September, London and Brussels nodded to this tension by promising to work on “new and emerging technologies” together. But ultimately, as an associated country, the UK still has no power to stop the EU from cutting it out of sensitive calls.

A political, not a practical problem

In reality, not having a vote on work programmes is not as big a deal as it sounds. Associated countries are still part of the committees that discuss grant calls, and the vast majority of work programmes are agreed by consensus and are not voted on, said one EU member state science counsellor, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The governance issue is in reality more a political than a practical issue during programme implementation,” the diplomat said.

Long-standing associated countries like Switzerland, Israel and Norway are practiced at influencing the Horizon research agenda despite having no formal vote. Newcomers like Canada and New Zealand will now have to learn the art of Brussels negotiation and lobbying to get their own way.

An exception to this consensus-driven approach is when deciding whether to exclude countries from sensitive calls – here, only EU member states discuss and decide, the diplomat explained.

“As it is only a few percent of the topics that are impacted by this it is once again mostly a political and less a practical problem,” the diplomat said. “Though the political part can be very real, of course.”

What’s more, associated countries won’t get a say in the design of the regulation that will underpin the next framework programme, FP10, which is set to start in 2028. It’s therefore crucial that the Commission keep the associated countries on board when it is being designed, they stressed.

The likes of Canada and the UK can also lobby through their own university organisations. Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said that his organisation takes on board the views of the UK’s Russell Group and the Canadian U15 when feeding through preferences for Horizon.

Policy divergence

There could also be some friction over the kind of science management policies Horizon Europe requires countries to adopt.

The issue is that while Canada – and indeed Japan – are both scientifically excellent, they lag the EU when it comes to policies on open science, the sharing of data, research assessment practices and diversity in research, noted Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe, a network for research funding agencies and institutions.

“That’s not yet the day to day in Japan or Canada,” she said. Given that adhering to policies in these areas are often pre-requisites for Horizon participation, some work might be needed to get new associated countries to align with them. Switzerland is much more closely aligned with the EU in these areas, making association an “urgent” priority, she said.

It could therefore be “tricky” to incorporate a wave of new associated countries into the framework programme, she said. Still, Borrell-Damián is overall very keen on the inclusion of the likes of Canada and New Zealand. “We think these strategic partnerships with strong research and innovation countries are very good,” she said.

The question of Japan

Incorporating Canada into Horizon Europe is one thing; swallowing Japan, which has an economy at least twice the size, and on a par with Germany, would be another.

Tokyo, which is currently mulling over association, would likely need to contribute a hefty sum into the Horizon pot, given the strength of Japanese research, without getting a formal vote over work programmes.

One mitigating factor, however, is that Canada and New Zealand have only joined the industrially focused partnerships of Horizon’s Pillar II, thereby shaving down their contribution. Japan would likely do the same.

“I have always though Japan is too big for Horizon,” said Jørgensen. “It needs a different kind of bilateral structure we haven’t created yet.”

Instead, Japan and the EU could work together on joint scientific infrastructure projects, like automated labs, say, suggested Jørgensen. This would allow them to both have an equal say on what to fund. Tokyo and Brussels have already agreed to share supercomputers in a deal this year.

Still, despite lengthy negotiations with Canada that dragged on longer than expected, a deal was reached – so it would be too soon to write off Japanese association just yet.

What’s certain is that as new players join Horizon Europe, questions will mount over who is in the driver’s seat.

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