Leading MEP urges Commission not to compromise with UK over Horizon Europe association

20 Jul 2023 | News

Christian Ehler worries about reopening the Brexit deal and jeopardising association negotiations with Japan and Canada. His intervention comes as the UK looks set to delay any decision on Horizon association until after the summer

MEP Christian Ehler has spoken out about UK attempts to re-negotiate the financial conditions for its participation in Horizon Europe. Photo: Eric Vidal / European Union

One of the European Parliament’s rapporteurs for Horizon Europe has urged the European Commission not to give in to UK demands for further financial guarantees that limit London’s net contribution to the research and innovation programme.

Christian Ehler said that giving the UK better financial terms would be hard to justify when the Commission is also in negotiations with countries like Canada and Japan.

And it could mean reopening 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that set the terms of post-Brexit relations.

“We're aware that the UK wants to renegotiate the financial conditions for its participation. However, it's settled, it's settled in the TCA,” Ehler warned Commission officials in a hearing of the parliament’s industry, research and energy committee yesterday. 

“So changing would mean amending the TCA, which seems an unimaginable compromise given the Northern Ireland history,” he said, referring to the deal to avoid customs checks on the island of Ireland. “So given this, could you explain what space for negotiations is there really?”

In an interview with Science|Business, Ehler also said that appearing to give the UK special terms could undermine the Commission’s association talks with Japan and Canada.

If the UK is allowed to renegotiate its deal, “What shall we tell the Japanese?” if they asked for a discount after agreeing terms, he said.

In Ehler’s view, the hold up now is less about money but about the UK government saving face and making sure Brexit doesn’t look like a bad idea. To do so, the UK must win. “Is it really a financial problem? Or is it just that they have to prove that Brexit was a very good idea?” he said.

Moreover, the UK’s scientific importance to the EU is fading as Brussels eyes association agreements with the likes of Japan and Canada, he noted.

“It is at least as interesting for the EU to have the Japanese closer, or even within the programme, [compared to the UK],” said Ehler.

Currently, Canada, South Korea and Japan are at various stages of negotiation to join Horizon Europe. Despite Commission hopes a deal with Canada would be signed in the spring, it is yet materialise. However, New Zealand has joined the programme, the first far-flung country to do so under a new approach that allows democratic but distant science powers to join. 

Sunak delays

Ehler’s comments come after the Financial Times reported UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has delayed a decision on whether to join Horizon Europe, or launch the UK’s backup Pioneer programme, until after the summer break.

“We’ve never set a deadline on our talks with the EU on the Horizon programme. Talks are ongoing and no deal has been agreed or finalised,” said a spokesperson at the UK Foreign Office, which is leading the negotiations.  

“Our preference is to associate to Horizon, but the Prime Minister has been clear that any deal must be value for money for taxpayers and in the best interests of UK science and research.”

Brussels and London are still haggling over the financial terms and conditions of association. London is concerned that the current deal leaves it without any guarantees it could recoup some of its contribution to Horizon if UK researchers fail to win many bids.

Given the UK’s two-and-a-half-year absence from the programme, the fear is that UK researchers have fallen out of the loop, and could take a few years get back to grant-winning ways.

Former UK chief Brexit negotiator David Frost welcomed Sunak’s pause. “The long delay since the original 2020 deal, a delay caused by the EU, means the cost/benefit balance of signing up will have greatly changed,” he tweeted. “[the UK’s] proposed national 'Pioneer' scheme now looks a better bet.”

But Sunak’s delay has triggered yet another wave of frustration from UK academics.

“If true, this betrays a really lackadaisical approach to the government’s stated aim for Britain to remain a science superpower,” said John Hardy, group leader at the UK Dementia Research Institute, University College London, in a statement.

Opposition MPs have been scathing, and even some of Sunak’s own conservative MPs appear frustrated by the hold-up. There was “a feeling that it could surely be done a little more quickly” Conservative MP Oliver Heald said in a parliamentary debate yesterday on Horizon association.

But not everyone wants the prime minister to jump into a decision. Unless both sides are happy with the deal, there is always the risk that the UK exercises a right to pull out of association after a year if its net contribution rises beyond a certain point, said Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the UK medical research charity Wellcome Trust.

“I very much feel the community’s frustration, but I want a long-term solution,” he said.

Is Ehler correct?

Several observers disagree with Ehler that the TCA, which sets out the broad terms of association, would have to be reopened to give the UK better financial guarantees.

Instead, changes could be made in the association protocol, which sets out the exact details of implementation. “Changing the TCA isn’t necessary or on the table for discussion – neither side wants to do that. But there are plenty of ways of implementing the TCA through the Protocol that can be discussed,” said Smith.

But even if a way were found to renegotiate without changing the TCA, Ehler’s broader worry – that if the UK was able to renegotiate its Horizon deal this could have a knock-on effect for other association talks – arguably still stands.

This issue also plays into a broader tiff between the Commission and the European Parliament over who has oversight over association deals. Ehler and other MEPs have refused to ratify the recent association of New Zealand because they are worried the form of the deal gives the Commission the right to agree future association deals without parliamentary scrutiny.

If the Commission amended the UK deal using the association protocol – which parliament does not have oversight over – this would prove it was sidestepping MEPs’ scrutiny when negotiating association, a parliamentary source said.

What about member states?

Member states have not yet put pressure on the Commission to hold firm or compromise with the UK, said one representative, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Research ministers would on the whole like the UK to be part of the programme, but this had to be weighed against any perception of allowing the UK to renegotiate the TCA and cherry pick parts of EU programmes it liked.

Member states wanted to move on from the negotiations, but there was also a risk that EU countries are simply getting used to the UK not being part of Horizon Europe, lessening the pressure to do a deal to allows the country to rejoin.

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