View from Brussels: EU Horizons to broaden in 2023 (kinda)

The European Union is looking to add some impressive names to its list of research and innovation partners in 2023, but the chances of two of the EU’s closest neighbours coming in from the cold still appear slim at best.

The EU’s €95 billion research programme, Horizon Europe, looks set to expand in 2023 as officials aim to agree new association agreements with partner countries that include Canada, Japan and South Korea.

According to EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel, Canada is likely to be onboard in the first half of the year and exploratory talks with Japan and South Korea are “getting closer to an end”.

That is good news for researchers operating in those countries as it means they will be able to access Horizon funding on the same equal terms as the EU’s 27 member states. The association agreements will include financial contributions to secure that access.

Canada in particular is extremely keen to collaborate with the EU on energy technologies and innovation, including battery production and hydrogen. Horizon association is seen as an important part of building really strong trade and industrial relations.

Horizon Europe already counts New Zealand among its global partners, after the island nation brokered its own association agreement at the end of last year. It is the first non-EU industrialised country to join the programme.

New Zealand’s deal is now awaiting a final sign-off from both sides but researchers are not completely happy with the deal, having urged their government to negotiate a comprehensive association agreement rather than a cherry-picking arrangement.

Under the terms of the pact, New Zealand researchers will have access to pillar 2 of Horizon Europe, which covers issues like climate change, energy and health. That misses out on, for example, pillar 1, which focuses on breakthrough technologies and research.

Gabriel’s ambitions do not end with those agreements though: Australia and Singapore are also on the radar, although the EU official told the European Parliament’s industry committee last week that negotiations are still at an “awareness-raising” stage.

The European Council on Foreign Relations recently suggested that Brussels should start touting the benefits of the Horizon scheme to North African countries, given their proximity to Europe and strong potential for clean energy generation.

Cooperation with countries like Morocco on sustainability issues already exists and could form the basis of more integration. Brussels would, however, have its work cut out making the political argument work.

Plus ça change

Meanwhile, two of the EU’s closest neighbours, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, look unlikely to secure Horizon membership any time soon as political logjams continue to obstruct any hope for a deal.

Switzerland’s political relations with Brussels remain in the doldrums after the government in Bern walked away from high-level talks nearly two years ago. EU heads will not consider the Horizon issue until broader issues are resolved first. 

Pressure is building at home to go back to the negotiating table as the damage of Horizon exclusion starts to become clear. Exploratory talks are ongoing but there are a lot of burned bridges to rebuild first.

There is a ticking clock of sorts in play: the current European Commission’s mandate only lasts until mid-2024 when new European elections will dictate the next five-year-long legislative cycle.

Switzerland’s bid would surely be shuffled down the list of priorities towards the end of the current term and at the beginning of the next, so a quicker resolution might be to Bern’s advantage, even if it does look like a Herculean task.

Across the Channel, the UK’s Horizon aspirations look to be as unachievable as ever, even if relations between Westminster and Brussels have improved — or at least not deteriorated — in recent months.

There are signs that talks about resolving the long-standing Northern Ireland Protocol issue are beginning to bear fruit but a major obstacle is still the political situation within Northern Ireland itself, which is far more unpredictable.

The European Commission has made it very clear that association status will not be on the table until an agreement on the protocol is in place. 

The longer those two spats go on, the more Horizon’s focus shifts elsewhere and networks of research partners develop and evolve without the Swiss and British contingents on board.

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