View from Brussels: Farewell EU, for parting is such sweet funding sorrow

As the Brexit negotiations trudge doggedly on, the UK-EU divorce settlement torturously drawn out, what does the future hold for all parties involved?

Many - maybe nearly all - political decisions lead to gains for some group and losses to others. You build a power station down by the shore and what leads to the greater good of the nation may lead to some loss quality of life of locals affected. What you do is you determine the political morality that justifies the decision made and/or provide some compensation mechanism for the losers.

There is no doubt about it: British EU membership meant British fishermen were fished out of their home waters. And the availability of cheap East European labour affected local employment in fruit-picking areas of Britain. But there were winners from EU membership, too. 

The various business and manufacturing lobbies screaming blue murder when the Brexit vote turned out the way it did testifies to that. Surely they have a keen perception of their members’ interests, do they not? Was it 92 per cent of representatives for the motor industry that preferred to stay in? Not to mention City interests. 

Somehow, however, the negative stories about the EU always seemed to crowd out the remainers’ “positive story”. Maybe there is something about human nature, that we accentuate and remember the negative rather than a positive.  Relationship counsellors will tell you that every unkind word to your partner has to be compensated for by five “positive words” to restore the equilibrium of the relationship. Simply, negatives hit harder - we remember them better than positives. There are probably evolutionary reasons for this. Anyway, it could be argued it meant we remember the losers rather than the winners from EU membership.

British scientists are one group that definitely benefited from EU membership: according to a poll conducted by Nature last year, 83 per cent were remainers and are one group that stands to lose when the UK leaves. Weren’t they heard enough during the referendum debate? Was that because, on top of the natural bias towards the negative I just described, it was the age-old problem of the British science community’s low profile on the British political scene?

Anyway, as the final Brexit settlement begins to get worked out, here is a salutary story from Switzerland. Everyone knows that immigration is the most neuralgic issue in Europe at the moment. The latest EU summit, starting today, pits the European commission and some of the larger member states, who want an EU-wide refugee redistribution mechanism, against the smaller East European members states who feel railroaded into agreeing something which is not in their national interest and fails to take into account Europe’s long-term interests in a world whose population will soon hit eight billion and still rising fast.

Switzerland has a kind of associate membership of the EU which some Brexiteers see as a model for Britain when it leaves. It had to go along with free movement of citizens; in return, among other things, it got access to the EU science programmes, from which the country was one of the largest per capita beneficiaries. The Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is one of the world’s best universities.

Then, in February 2014, they had one of those famously democratic binding referendums, promoted by the Swiss Populist party, the SVP. The country imposed immigration controls. This contravened the terms of their associate membership and the EU’s reaction was instantaneous. One of the consequences was that Switzerland was cut out of the Horizon 2020 programme, in particular the lucrative and prestigious European Research Council grants. There is an article online in which Swiss scientists pour out their laments

After a year, access to one-third of the programme was restored, but Swiss researchers missed two important funding calls and it was not until the end of 2016 that Swiss researchers could reapply for the same range of funding programmes as before the referendum. To be let back in from the cold, the Swiss government rolled back on some of their immigration controls.

The Swiss scientists quoted in the article that Brexit could be a boon to some, that continental research teams wouldn’t mind not having to compete with Oxford and Cambridge’s best for European Research grants. Not very cricket, but that is life. 

I suppose the lesson is: the British science community must make sure their interests are not sacrificed when Theresa May negotiates to secure permanent control over Britain’s  borders. We don’t know how long Angela Merkel will remain in office, but the Swiss example shows how the EU is willing to play hardball over this most contested issue, even with a quiescent and unproblematic associate member like Switzerland.

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