UK-EU research deal at a glance

30 Dec 2020 | News

Britain will take part in Horizon Europe – but how will it work? A look at the fine print


The post-Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK has set off a scramble to work out what it means for individuals, businesses, research labs and universities.

The treaty, 1,246 pages long, says that the UK can continue to pay into and participate in five EU funding programmes – including the big Horizon Europe research scheme, a seven-year, €95.5 billion plan to succeed the current programme, Horizon 2020.

The UK has a strong track record in EU research competitions. From 2007-2013, the country participated in over 10,000 projects with over 18,000 participants. In total, the UK secured around €7 billion in funding (15% of total awarded funding) over that period – the second greatest share of participations and of EU funding, behind Germany in both cases. Overall, the UK has secured around €5.9 billion in funding from Horizon 2020, according to June 2019 figures (13.5% of the total, second again to Germany).

Brexit pumped the brakes on UK success. The country's annual share of EU research funding has fallen by nearly a third since 2015, according to the Royal Society.

The Christmas Eve deal ends uncertainty around the UK’s eligibility for EU competitions, but it also changes the rules of the game for UK access, making life more complicated than when Britain was a member of the bloc. The accord commits the UK to further negotiations with Brussels to formally “associate” with the programme, meaning London will contribute some funding and its researchers can bid for Horizon money alongside Europeans. With the Brexit-induced policy logjam out of the way, Commission officials can now also start association negotiations with distant non-EU countries like Canada and Japan.

Here’s some of the main features of the new relationship in more detail.

The money

The UK’s annual pay-in to EU programmes will be calculated based on the country’s gross domestic product as a share of EU GDP – the “operational” contribution. A further sum, the participation fee, will be levied at 4 per cent of the country’s operational sum.

The operational contribution may be adjusted upwards or downwards “retrospectively”, depending on how much the UK takes out versus how much it puts in to the EU pot.

Besides Horizon Europe, the UK will continue to have a role in four other EU programmes, namely the Euratom nuclear research programme, the ITER project to build the world’s first functioning nuclear fusion system, the earth monitoring project Copernicus, and EU satellite surveillance and tracking services. In the absence of defence cooperation, the UK will not have access to Galileo encrypted military data. 

The treaty states that the method for calculating the UK sum for Horizon Europe will be different from the method used in the other EU programmes. “There is an exemption on the basic rules for Horizon Europe,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, a lobby group in Belgium. “[So] I cannot deduce what the UK's contribution will be, and if this is more or less than in the past.”

What’s clear is that Britain will get money back if its researchers are excluded from parts of Horizon Europe, which runs until 2027. Political declarations accompanying the treaty say that the UK will be barred from competing for grants from the European Innovation Council’s accelerator fund, meaning the UK’s annual contribution to the research programme will be adjusted accordingly.  In the past, when a non-EU country like Switzerland or Israel joined EU research schemes as associate members, this membership covered the whole programme.

The negotiation continues

To do business with Brussels is to accept semi-permanent negotiations. The UK will need to negotiate a further agreement with Brussels for joining each of the five EU programmes.

Negotiating the so-called association agreement for Horizon Europe is likely to take some months. Becoming a top-tier associate member country in Horizon Europe means UK-based researchers will be allowed to coordinate projects. If there is no deal with the UK by the time the first Horizon grant competitions are announced, the European Commission may still grant UK provisional eligibility to the programme.

A further opening up of Horizon Europe to distant non-EU partners, such as Canada and Japan, was stymied by Brexit. EU Brexit negotiators banned any discussion of what those UK terms might be, for fear of messing up the main Brexit deal. That meant the Commission was also reluctant to talk about association in detail with any other countries – now though, this barrier has fallen away, leaving the EU with the freedom to formalise a host of research deals with non-EU countries.

‘Emergency brake’

Both sides can unilaterally terminate UK participation in Horizon Europe and the other programmes. The UK can do so with 45 days' notice if the conditions for participation substantially change, the country’s financial contribution increases by 15 per cent or they are excluded from more than 10 per cent of the programme.

“The EU gets certainty about what UK pays; UK gets an emergency brake,” said Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association.

The UK government wanted some form of safety net to compensate the government if its researchers come back with a lower than expected share of Horizon Europe funding.

Suspension and termination

If the UK fails to pay its financial contribution or the conditions that existed when the UK entered change substantially, the EU can suspend UK participation with 45 days' notice. If the EU has not lifted the suspension and the situation has not been resolved after a year then the UK’s participation in the EU programme will be terminated.

Freedom of movement ends

British citizens will lose the right to travel, work, study or reside in the EU for as long as they wish. The deal ends freedom of movement. 

Visas will be now be required by UK researchers for stays of over 90 days in the EU.  

Student exchange ends

The UK is out of the EU’s Erasmus+ university exchange programme, with the government claiming that to be an associate member would be “too expensive”. A £100 million replacement programme, called the Turing Scheme, will start in September 2021.

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