Draft deal still faces barriers to approval by both UK and European parliaments
Brexit took a major step closer to reality on Thursday when a new draft deal was agreed between UK and EU negotiating teams in advance of a meeting of European leaders in Brussels.
But it will still need the approval of both the UK and European parliaments. The UK is expected to stage a knife-edge vote on the deal in a sitting of parliament on Saturday, with prime minister Boris Johnson’s minority government having failed to win the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, and the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist parties, insisting they won’t vote for it.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called it a "fair and balanced agreement". Boris Johnson tweeted, "We've got a great new deal that takes back control." Both leaders have urged their respective parliaments to back the deal.
The draft deal secures the EU’s Horizon 2020 research budget, which could have seen a shortfall had the UK pulled out of the bloc with no deal.
The commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that the deal ensured the UK would honour its commitments to the current EU budget, which expires at the end of next year. “Financial commitments already undertaken between 28 will still be respected and honoured between 28,” said Barnier.
“The deal also covers the transition period, which was requested by the British government and will last until the end of 2020,” he said, before adding that the transition period could be extended by another one or two years, if all sides agree.
UK science minister Chris Skidmore welcomed the agreement, saying, “This deal protects UK participation in existing science and research projects and Erasmus +, while the new political declaration ensures discussion of future participation in EU programmes.”
Agreement was reached in Brussels after an intense week of negotiations on the sticking point of the customs border with Ireland.
EU leaders are now expected to give their political approval to the revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration on Thursday afternoon.
Johnson has said he wants the UK to leave the EU on 31 October. However, even if the UK House of Commons approves the deal – which is far from certain – there may not be enough time to ratify it on the EU side without delaying the UK’s departure from the EU.
Speaking shortly before the deal was announced, a senior EU official said, “if there is a deal, ratification by the end of October may be impossible."
The European Parliament president, David Sassoli, is due to address EU leaders later today, when he is expected to tell them whether parliament can ratify the deal in time. The parliament’s next full plenary session is due to be held in Strasbourg next week.
All of this could be scuppered if Johnson fails to get his deal through. The DUP said it couldn’t offer the prime minister any guarantees of its support, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has joined the Liberal Democrats in calling for a second referendum.
Brexit deal underlines research
The new or “revised” political declaration for a future relationship after Brexit, which is not legally binding, offers roughly the same level of detail as the original offer published last November.
The new text says both sides will “explore the participation” of the UK in the European Research Infrastructure Consortiums (ERICs), the large, EU-led international science projects.
The UK currently hosts two ERICs: the European Social Survey, based at City University London, and Instruct, which looks at integrated structural biology, based at Oxford University.
There is a lot of money tied up in UK membership of ERICs. According to House of Lords estimates, the country has received around £30 million in grants and membership fees and has contributed more than £64 million to these infrastructures.
In other research-related areas, the draft text has not changed significantly from the original declaration.
It contains aspirations involving shared interests, close partnerships and co-operation, but many of the details are still to come.
But the real issue – still to be resolved in future negotiations – is what happens from 2021 onwards, when the UK is outside the EU and the Commission’s new research programme, Horizon Europe, is underway.
The UK’s role in future EU research projects is only touched on lightly, with a commitment to discuss general principles, terms and conditions for the continued EU-UK science relationship. It’s widely expected that the UK will go on to negotiate some form of “associate country” status for Horizon Europe, as Switzerland, Norway and 14 other countries already do. Serious talks for that won’t begin until next year, though there’s likely to be lots of preliminary exchanges between Brussels and London.
The text meanwhile doesn’t go beyond “noting” the UK’s desire to stay a part of Euratom, which oversees nuclear research and sets the rules on where nuclear material is stored and how it is moved.
Euratom is a separate legal entity from the EU, but is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. No country is a full member of Euratom without being a member of the EU. New agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency will replace the existing agreements between it, Euratom and the UK.
The UK would have to continue applying EU data protection standards to data coming in from the continent. The EU, for its part, would not treat personal data from the UK any differently from data obtained in the EU simply because of the UK having left.
The new document also acknowledges previous commitments to cooperate on health security and cybersecurity.
The EU makes it clear that it needs the UK in defence, and vows to explore cooperation in new EU-led defence research projects.
Battle over long-term budget
Away from the week’s big Brexit showdown, EU leaders will also discuss the EU’s next long-term budget on Friday, including the amount that will go to research, though they are not expected to agree anything conclusive.
European countries are deadlocked. East European countries are unhappy with commission proposals to cut agricultural subsidies and cohesion funds for poorer regions in order to spend more on research. But wealthier states like Germany say the commission’s proposed budget is too large, and needs to be cut down.
EU leaders will discuss Finnish proposals to reduce the size of the proposed budget while keeping the proportions of its different parts roughly the same – but not quite. A slightly higher proportion of the budget would go to cohesion and to agriculture, at the expense of "other programmes," the largest of which is Horizon Europe. That would likely mean a smaller research budget than the €94.1 billion envisaged by the commission.
All EU countries have a veto over the budget, meaning research spending could become a casualty of the need to placate both those that want a smaller budget and those angry about cuts to cohesion funds.
This article was updated on 17 October to include additional detail on the Finnish proposals to be discussed by the European Council.