View from Brussels: Losing friends, alienating people

The European Union’s spat with close neighbours Switzerland and the United Kingdom continues, derailing efforts to seal a deal on research funding for the next decade. In the Swiss case, it is pushing their government into the arms of other countries.

Access to the EU’s €95bn research programme – Horizon Europe – is contingent on signing up to other rules and regulations, so that non-EU countries are on the same level playing field as the 27 member states.

For non-EU nations like Norway, it is relatively smooth sailing as it is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), whose rules are very closely aligned with the full-fat EU codex. But for Switzerland and the UK, it is more complex.

This time last year, talks between Bern and Brussels broke down, as the Swiss government pulled the plug on a bilateral deal that would have codified hundreds of separate agreements with the EU into one overarching framework.

Swiss ministers were concerned that the pact would undermine the Alpine republic’s preciously guarded sovereignty over migration, labour and judicial matters. That meant that the EU had to put the brakes on programmes like Horizon Europe.

Post-Brexit Britain is also locked out of the programme, despite its final deal with the EU stipulating that Horizon association would be possible. Westminster’s rhetoric over the Northern Ireland Protocol is now the main source of contention.

Despite desperate calls by universities, institutes and think tanks in recent months urging the European Commission to admit Switzerland and the UK on at least an interim basis, Brussels has been unable to do so.

“We firmly believe that the non-association of Switzerland and the UK is detrimental to scientific cooperation and to the leadership of Europe,” said the G6 research network.

However, the lack of diplomatic progress has now pushed the Swiss government into launching more of its own research programmes and sparked a hunt for partnerships with other countries. 

“I am aware that the current situation for researchers and innovators in Switzerland is challenging,” said Swiss state secretary for education and research Martina Hirayama this week.

Hirayama announced a number of new schemes aimed at cushioning the impact of no Horizon Europe funding for the time being. That includes millions of euros to boost cooperation with other countries and a new national quantum initiative.

Switzerland is going to try and improve its research ties with Israel, Japan and the US, among others. The government has also started talks with the UK on a trade deal, which could include research programme elements.

The UK is also still locked out of Horizon, and last month the European Research Council urged Britain-based researchers to align themselves with an EU-based institute or risk losing their funding. The ERC has given them two months to comply.

Whether there will be any progress in the coming weeks or months is hard to say. A recent EU scheme aimed at helping 100 cities go carbon-neutral by 2030 – all under the Horizon Europe umbrella – included Bristol and Glasgow.

“The United Kingdom is expected to become associated to Horizon Europe and will therefore have the same rights and obligations as other members,” the Commission said in the materials accompanying the 100 cities announcement.

No Swiss cities applied for the scheme.

UK Horizon Europe fortunes may ultimately hinge on Northern Ireland’s elections this week and Westminster’s reaction to that result. If the Protocol continues to be a thorn in the side of EU-UK relations, then researchers may have a long wait ahead.

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