View from Brussels: Horizon Europe’s expansion begins

The European Union’s flagship research and development programme, Horizon Europe, got its first non-EU members this week. More are expected to join soon, including the United Kingdom.

Horizon Europe’s €95bn six-year run of funding research, innovation and development kicked off in 2021 and will last until 2027. Fully open to researchers within the EU, the programme also accepts applications from third-party countries.

On Friday, the European Commission announced that negotiations had wrapped up with Iceland and Norway, meaning they can be granted associated country status under the same conditions enjoyed by the EU’s 27 member states.

It makes the two Nordic countries the first non-EU states to get the full Horizon Europe privileges and means that researchers can start applying for funding.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s tech tsar, said that “by joining forces with Iceland and Norway, we will pursue a series of actions in support of the green, digital and public health agendas.”

The Danish official added that “openness and cooperation with the rest of the world are key in our strategy to create critical mass for research and innovation and to accelerate and find solutions to pressing global challenges.”

Mariya Gabriel, who heads up innovation policies in Brussels, said that she was delighted to have Iceland and Norway back in fold as they were “amongst the best performers under Horizon 2020, showing innovation leadership and excellence”.

According to the Commission, Icelandic and Norwegian researchers are likely to focus their areas of interest on issues related to Arctic studies and climate projects, as well as hydrogen, carbon capture and data-driven innovation.

Both countries have been involved with EU-level innovation funding since 1987, in Norway’s case, and 1994, for Iceland. They have been involved in numerous successful projects, including ones aimed at sustainable seafood, renewable energy and cancer diagnosis.

Iceland and Norway have both flirted with full EU membership at various points in their recent history but whenever a serious decision has been needed about taking the leap, public sentiment has decided that it is better to be closely aligned but not a full member.

The two countries were able to get associated status with Horizon Europe so quickly because they are full members of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement, which means that their rules and legislation are already at a level required by Brussels.

Talks are ongoing with a number of other countries, although the other EEA country - Liechtenstein - does not intend to join. Lower-income countries around the world are automatically eligible for a portion of the funding war-chest.

Switzerland is a problematic case, as its transitional agreements with the EU do not cover the Horizon programme and talks about renewing the EU-Swiss treaty - which governs all relations between the two neighbours - fell apart earlier this year.

According to Yves Flückiger, president of Switzerland’s university association, “I’m afraid it will at least take two years” for the Alpine nation to get its membership, adding that association talks with other countries, including most of the Western Balkan non-EU states, will keep the Commission busy.

Switzerland’s national science foundation has tried to broker other research funding and programmes since the EU talks collapsed and has attempted to align as closely as possible with the European Research Centre.

However, as Flückiger points out, “they totally underestimate the fact that being part of Horizon Europe is more than just the money.” Switzerland may still be able to apply just as a third country but this comes with far fewer perks than associated status.

The United Kingdom is also vying for associated country status and talks are still ongoing with the Commission. The negotiations are reportedly unaffected by other EU-UK talks, including the spat over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and are proceeding as planned.

According to the British government’s recent artificial intelligence strategy, Horizon Europe will factor into the UK’s plans to become a global AI “superpower”, as it will “enable collaboration with other European researchers”.

Further announcements on Horizon Europe’s full roster are expected “in the coming weeks”, according to the Commission, which has confirmed that €14.7 billion will be up for grabs until the end of 2022.

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