UK will keep access to EU research programme, as trade deal is agreed

24 Dec 2020 | News

EU/UK ‘trade and cooperation agreement’ creates path for UK to keep a close science relationship with Brussels, but the terms on which the UK joins Horizon Europe are yet to be agreed - and Erasmus student exchange ends

Johnson Von der Leyen

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Photo: EU Commission.

UK researchers will be allowed to participate in EU research programmes post-Brexit, according to the terms of the breakthrough EU-UK trade deal announced on Christmas Eve.  

The accord, if turned into law, will establish tariff and quota free trade between the two sides in goods, and cooperation in areas including science, climate change, nuclear and fusion research, security and transport.

The deal is a boost to researchers, who were anxious and angry at the huge Brexit disruption of the last four and a half years.

The announcement, which followed a full year of difficult and often bad-tempered talks, clears the way for the UK to take part in the EU’s 2021 – 2027 €95.5 billion research programme, Horizon Europe, though the terms remain to be negotiated.

“It means certainty for our scientists,” the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday announcing the deal.  They will “be able to continue to work together on great collective projects,” he said. “Although we want the UK to be a science superpower, we also want to be a collaborative science superpower.”

UK-based researchers will be hoping this means top-tier “associate country” status in Horizon Europe, the level Switzerland, Norway and 14 other non-EU countries enjoy for the current scheme, Horizon 2020, and which guarantees many of the same rights as EU members.

However, UK participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ student exchange programme will end, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator confirmed, saying this is a source of disappointment for him.

The loss of access to Erasmus was described as, “a sad betrayal of our youth, their opportunities and ambitions,” by Scientists for EU, a UK research lobby group. Johnson said the government would announce a replacement programme, to be called the ‘Turing scheme’, without providing further details.

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.  

But the UK will be outside a host of other EU programmes, including the massive regional development and agriculture schemes. The country will also be excluded from “sensitive, high-security projects or contracts”, Brussels confirmed.

The agreement came too late for the European Parliament to vote on it before the transition period ends on 31 December. To allow time for that and other formalities, the deal will apply on a provisional basis until 28 February, meaning the UK will not crash out. The text also has to pass the scrutiny of member states.

Years of worry

UK access to the EU’s research programme wasn’t among the thorniest of issues for negotiators to settle, but neither was it without complications.

The UK government over the years had assured anxious academics it had a clear ambition to join Horizon Europe, but recently talks on this issue were not going well. The UK government was concerned that it could end up as a significant net contributor to the European research budget, with little say over how it is administered, and little guarantee of winning a similar number of grants that it managed as an EU member.

“We shouldn’t obscure the fact that the financial negotiations are not in a good position,” Vivienne Stern, head of Universities UK, the umbrella body for 139 universities, told MPs in October.

Now though, the deal on the future EU-UK relationship creates a path for the UK to negotiate associate country status. However, the exact scope of the UK participation remains to be seen, with the full text of the free trade agreement still to be published.

“We look forward to seeing the details of arrangements to ensure the closest possible scientific cooperation,” Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, said. “The focus must now be on ensuring a fair and effective means to deliver appropriate association to EU science funding programmes.”

“Any delay in delivering such association will damage UK science and, in the event of any delay, the government must take quick action to protect and stabilise the world class asset that is our science base,” Smith’s said.

A leaked government document early on Thursday said the UK had achieved a “novel arrangement” on research, having set out to achieve a “standard third country” deal. The reality, however, is that the UK was seeking a far more ambitious agreement, at one time proposing it should have a bigger say than other non-EU countries in managing EU research projects.

The UK had set out to achieve a “safety net”, in the form of a “downward correction mechanism” to compensate the UK government if it paid more into Horizon Europe into the programme than UK-based researchers scooped in grants. The leaked government document suggests that the UK did not achieve this negotiating aim.

Top scientists have been worried ever since the 2016 referendum about EU research funding, but also about weakened ties with European researchers. If the tap was suddenly to turn off on EU Horizon grants, it’s likely fewer foreign researchers would choose to settle in the UK.

Failure to secure a deal on research would have seen the UK rushing to create replacement programmes. And while the UK could come up with its own schemes – albeit not overnight – researchers say they would lack the same prestige and not offer as much competition as the EU programmes.

Took the leap

Officials have spent 2020 hunkered in intense talks in London and Brussels to try to avoid a sudden imposition of tariffs on trade.

Absent a deal, analysts were predicting a massive disruption on 1 January, when the UK will formally leave the single market and customs union.

A big point of concern for Brussels was how future disputes could be resolved, such as if the UK broke commitments, with faith already undermined this year by the UK government’s attempts to override parts of the withdrawal agreement through legislation in Westminster. In the background is Joe Biden, incoming US president who warned against an EU-UK trade deal that compromised the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland.

Both sides were also extremely wary of a deal that gave too much away. Access to UK fishing waters and the so-called level playing field for business were two well-worn issues heading into December.

The level playing field had to do with the EU managing the long-term challenge posed by a new competitor on its doorstep. The EU has been keen to sign the UK up to a mechanism to ensure that neither side can gain a competitive advantage by deregulating over time.

Businesses, governments and research labs, already grappling with the huge disruption brought by the pandemic, kept pressure on the negotiators throughout the year to reveal their plans and allow preparations to cope with what might happen.

Deadlines came and went throughout the talks, but in the end officials bent on their hardened positions. After a year of political poker, both sides took the leap and concluded an agreement.

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