Stalemate continues over UK bid to join Horizon Europe

23 Sep 2022 | News

After the latest meeting bears no fruit, UK must decide on launching its own alternative programme or taking the EU to months-long arbitration

The UK is “urgently” considering its options on whether to continue fighting for Horizon Europe association after this week’s meeting with the EU failed to put an end to months-long deadlock.

“The UK government is now urgently considering next steps. Our priority is to support the UK’s world leading R&D sector and we have already outlined potential options for doing so,” the government said in a statement.

After months of delay, the September 22 meeting was yet another attempt to end the impasse over the UK joining the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme. The UK negotiated terms of participation in Horizon as part of the 2020 EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) covering the UK exit from the EU overall. Horizon Europe is one of the few EU programmes that the UK wanted to stick with; it had in the past been the second largest winner of EU research grants, after Germany.

But the Commission has since tied association to the programme to the wider political dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Sixteen months later, neither side is willing to budge. At this point, no further talks are planned. “No further consultation meetings on this topic have been agreed,” an EU official said.

The UK is now scrambling to work out its next steps. The meeting on September 22 was requested by the UK under the dispute-resolution terms of the TCA. The UK now has two options – assuming there’s still no breakthrough in the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, or willingness by the EU to budge on Horizon. The UK could launch an alternative domestic research programme, or take the EU to arbitration.

Arbitration is the legal step taken if consultations, which ended this week, fail to produce results. It would create an independent arbitration tribunal consisting of one UK nominee, one EU nominee and a jointly agreed chair. Under the TCA rules, the tribunal has the job of with coming up with a binding solution to the disagreement within 130 days, with a possibility to extend to 160 days.

If arbitration is ruled out, the UK may decide to launch its Plan B programme, unveiled in July. It is  ready to go if needed, according to officials. But launching an alternative programme would mean diverging from the joint European research framework. While that does not close the door to Horizon Europe long-term, the longer the programmes develop separately, the more difficult it may be to jumpstart cooperation later.

As the UK government deliberates, researchers are growing more impatient with the continued instability. Universities UK (UUK) continues to call for association, but is more and more concerned about the damage done by the “toxic” uncertainty.

“Both UUK and the sector as a whole are clear in our preference for a continued relationship with Horizon, which will allow for UK universities and researchers to continue their work with limited disruption,” UUK said in a statement in response to the meeting. “However, the potential damage which could be caused by the ending of that association will be minimal in comparison to the continued uncertainty that the sector is currently faced with.”

The UK’s preference continues to be full association to EU programmes, including Horizon Europe, Euratom nuclear research programme, and the Copernicus earth observation programme.

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