View from Brussels: Horizon Europe in jeopardy

The United Kingdom’s participation in the EU’s flagship research and innovation programme is in doubt after becoming infected by the fallout from Brexit, despite attempts to quarantine Horizon Europe from contagion. The outlook is not good for UK-based researchers.

UK membership of the EU’s multi-billion-euro Horizon Europe scheme has been in limbo for several months, as the European Commission prioritised the applications of other countries and waited to see how the situation around the Northern Ireland Protocol would develop.

Initially, top EU officials insisted that applications to join the research programme and the bloc’s satellite network, Copernicus, would not be affected by parallel talks on the finer points of implementing Brexit.

However, the situation has rapidly evolved and the UK government is reportedly preparing an alternative to Horizon Europe, known as the ‘Discovery Fund’, according to The Telegraph.

That homegrown scheme will certainly fail to replicate the benefits of the pan-EU programme, given that it will cut British researchers off from projects that involve thousands of other institutions and research bodies.

Much like the UK government’s EU-substitute initiatives, such as the ‘Turing scheme’ - a poor man’s version of the bloc’s student exchange Erasmus+ programme - and the ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’, there will be less cash and fewer chances to broaden horizons.

The same media report claims that the government is considering abandoning the Copernicus application and its involvement in Euratom, the EU’s nuclear treaty. It is unclear to what extent this is a negotiating gambit or credible threat.

Last week, little progress was made between the two sides during another round of talks over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a divisive part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that the UK government is trying to rewrite after agreeing to it.

It looks increasingly likely that the British side will trigger Article 16 of the protocol and that the EU will possibly suspend the trade deal that governs commercial ties. Ireland's foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said on Sunday that both factors are now distinctly probable.

Westminster reportedly does not want the Horizon issue to be a trump card for Brussels to play during the inevitable talks that would follow that act.

CESAER, an umbrella group representing more than 1,000 universities and academies, wrote last week to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urging her institution to give the UK the green light as soon as possible regardless.

“We urge the European Commission and UK government to work towards a successful UK association to Horizon Europe, to safeguard this valuable and mutually beneficial R&I cooperation,” the letter reads.

It also points out that many of its members have already been collaborating with UK colleagues “in good faith” on projects, based on the assumption that Horizon funding approval was assumed to be a mere formality.

The letter concludes that a “crunch point” is approaching, as new funding calls and project applications will have to be filled out.

Nearly €100 billion will be doled out by the EU programme over the next seven years and the UK had initially secured membership by committing to paying in about €2 billion every year.

If a further breakdown of relations occurs and Horizon membership is indeed taken off the table, a €14 billion hole in the programme's war chest will be difficult for Brussels to plug, although the UK's absence will reduce the number of applications for funding.

Other non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland have already been granted access, as has Turkey. However, contrary to some reports in the UK, the EU is also refusing to approve Switzerland’s membership, because of a separate dispute.

The Swiss government recently failed to renew the treaty that governs relations between Bern and Brussels, due mostly to a spat over immigration policy. Talks continue and progress was reportedly made during a meeting in the Belgian capital last week.

COP26, the ongoing climate change summit in Glasgow, is due to wrap up later this week and Prime Minister Boris Johnson could be delaying a decision on the Northern Ireland Protocol issue until that UN meeting is over, in order not to steal focus.

All signals point towards his government pushing what some Brexit analysts have dubbed “the nuclear button”, meaning Horizon Europe membership might be cruelly snatched away from researchers and scientists who were assured it was a done deal.

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