Northern Ireland protocol row could influence UK association to Horizon Europe

27 Sep 2021 | News

Research cooperation is caught up in rising tensions between London and Brussels regarding Northern Ireland’s status in the EU single market, says research commissioner Maryia Gabriel

Mariya Gabriel, EU research commissioner. Photo: European Union

Horizon Europe association talks with the UK could get embroiled in the broader political issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU research commissioner Maryia Gabriel told MEPs on Monday.

Speaking at a meeting of the industry and research committee (ITRE) in the European Parliament, Gabriel said the UK is going to be associated in the EU’s research and innovation programme through a cooperation protocol, which is currently enmeshed in rising tensions between London and Brussels regarding Northern Ireland’s status in the EU single market.

The UK agreed to keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market after Brexit, in order to prevent a hard customs border on the island of Ireland that would have hobbled free movement of goods and people, and to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 treaty that ended political and religious violence.

The UK government now argues that the protocol, which was viewed as the key diplomatic breakthrough in sealing the Brexit agreement, is damaging trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Government officials have threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and temporarily suspend parts of the deal.

The European Commission has warned against such a plan and said it intends to conclude all outstanding issues with the UK over the protocol before the end of the year.

At the moment, the Commission is “completing internal procedures to be able to adopt the [research cooperation] protocol as soon as possible,” said Gabriel. “Questions tied to the protocol on Northern Ireland are also being tackled.”

UK researchers are still involved in ongoing research projects funded through Horizon 2020, the EU’s previous research programme. “We’ve done the necessary to ensure British researchers .... can continue until the end of the period,” said Gabriel. “For the next programming period, we need a little bit more time, a little bit more information to evaluate all this in more in depth way.”

A Commission spokesman did not want to comment specifically on Gabriel’s intervention in the Parliament but said the Commission’s “internal procedures are ongoing”.

UK has already agreed terms of Horizon association, but is still waiting the final confirmation from Brussels. In June, UK representatives expressed concern about a “seeming delay” to the sign off for association to various EU programmes, including Horizon Europe.

The Commission has ongoing negotiations with 18 countries that have expressed their wish to join the €95.5 billion programme, 15 of which are already associated in Horizon Europe’s predecessor, Horizon 2020.

On Friday, the Commission announced Norway and Iceland have become associated to Horizon Europe, and it is planning to announce Ukraine’s association by 12 October. Other countries have expressed their intention to join, said Gabriel. “Informal discussions are ongoing with newcomers,” she said.

Earlier this year, the EU suspended association talks with Switzerland, after Bern decided to pull out of a decade-long negotiation on an overarching economic cooperation framework. Brussels is also demanding that Switzerland pays overdue contributions to the Commission’s cohesion policy budget before Horizon talks can resume.  “Unfortunately we do not have any prospects for association at the moment,” said Gabriel.

The EU is in the middle of drafting new principles for international research cooperation which, according to Gabriel, are based on “balanced reciprocity”. In short, the Commission does not want to give access to its research programme to countries which may jeopardise EU’s push to boost its global competitiveness in new technologies.

The Commission is also negotiating a joint cooperation roadmap with China, but Gabriel said Horizon association is off the table until the communist regime can reassure the EU that it has laid the “appropriate framework conditions to allow our cooperation to develop.”

In November, the Commission is also planning to launch new rules designed to help European research organisations to deal with foreign interference.


Editor's note: This article was updated 17 October. UK government officials have threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, NOT article 16 of the Good Friday Agreement

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