Brexit presents many challenges to the UK engineering sector

UK launches legal action against EU over Horizon research programme

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The EU is "in clear breach of agreement" over the UK's access to the bloc's scientific research programmes post-Brexit, the government has stated.

The UK government has written to the European Commission demanding that the bloc ends "persistent delays" over the UK's access to the £81bn ‘Horizon Europe’ programme, as well as similar research grants.  

Under the 2020 Brexit agreement, the UK was to obtain associate membership of the bloc's research initiatives post-Brexit. However, it was revealed earlier this year that the EU has been purposefully delaying the UK’s membership as a response to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol, a vital part of the Brexit deal. 

"The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalise access to these important programmes," foreign minister Liz Truss said in a statement.

In addition to Horizon Europe, the UK is yet to obtain formal access to Copernicus, the Earth observation programme on climate change, Euratom, the nuclear research programme, and to services such as Space Surveillance and Tracking, 18 months after Brexit was enacted. 

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said the EU's refusal to finalise access is "causing serious damage to research and development in both the UK and EU member states".

Both sides have said in the past that cooperation in research would be mutually beneficial. However, the science programmes have become a pawn in the negotiations regarding the possible breach of the Northern Ireland protocol announced by Boris Johnson − a position that Truss said she would support should she become Prime Minister. 

Last June, the EU launched legal proceedings against Britain over the breach of the international agreement, following the publication of an official letter seen by Politico stating the EU’s intention to use the Horizon programme as a way of pressing the British government. The month prior, the VP of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, had said that the EU would respond “with all measures at its disposal” should the UK go ahead with a bill to disapply elements of the protocol.

In response, ministers have opted to launch dispute resolution proceedings to “encourage the EU to abide by their obligations in the deal”, according to the FCDO. 

"We cannot allow this to continue. That is why the UK has now launched formal consultations and will do everything necessary to protect the scientific community," said Truss. 

Daniel Ferrie, a spokesperson for the European Commission, said earlier on Tuesday he had seen reports of the action but had yet to receive formal notification. He also stressed the importance of the "political context" in the negotiations. 

"There are serious difficulties in the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and parts of the Trade and Cooperation agreement," he said. "The TCA, the trade and cooperation agreement, provides neither for a specific obligation for the EU to associate the UK to union programmes at this point in time, nor for a precise deadline to do so."

Earlier this month, a cross-party group of peers on the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee concluded in a report that the government’s international science policy “has been somewhat incoherent”. The report's conclusions stressed the importance of Horizon Europe membership, and warned of a "risk" to the UK's reputation, should it not be secured. 

Russell Group universities have won over 14,000 European Research Council grants worth £1.5bn – more than the whole of France – making the Horizon programme a vital part of the UK academic landscape.

In the past, countries such as Norway, Iceland and Turkey have been granted access to the programmes, despite not being members of the EU. 

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