Brexit concept

Brexit agreement ‘good news’ for UK membership of Horizon Europe

Image credit: Pixabay

Negotiations for UK associate membership of the £81bn Horizon Europe research scheme can begin ‘the moment’ the new Northern Ireland Protocol deal is approved, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The debate over the UK's long-delayed request to join the EU’s flagship research programme, post-Brexit, has seemingly been solved by a new UK-EU agreement.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said work on associating the UK to the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme will start “immediately” once the wider deal between Brussels and London over the Northern Ireland protocol is implemented.

The deal, dubbed the 'Windsor Framework', was hailed as a “decisive breakthrough” in post-Brexit rules by UK prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Sunak said the agreement would open "a new chapter" in the UK's relations with the European Union, which have been frosty over the past year due to the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Windsor Framework is expected to remove trade barriers for Northern Ireland and give the UK a “veto” on EU law, with the goal of restoring powersharing in Stormont.

The deal was also presented as beneficial for scientists and researchers on both sides of the Channel.

“This Windsor Framework is good news for scientists and researchers in the European Union and in the UK," Von der Leyen told a press conference.

“Because, of course, the moment we have finished this agreement – so it’s an agreement in principle – the moment it’s implemented, I am happy to start immediately right now the work on an association agreement, which is the precondition to join Horizon Europe.

“So, good news for all those who are working in research and science.”

The UK’s associate membership of the €95bn (£81bn) Horizon Europe programme was foreseen in the 2020 Brexit agreement. However, the EU has been delaying the UK’s membership due to the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Last week, the UK’s science and technology minister, Michelle Donelan, said she is prepared to snub Horizon and create an alliance with the US, Japan and Switzerland if an agreement could not be reached. 

However, the new UK-EU deal seems to have avoided that scenario. 

Von der Leyen - standing beside Sunak, who she warmly referred to as “dear Rishi” - hailed a “new chapter in our partnership” that will foster a “stronger EU-UK relationship”.

Sunak said: “Together we have changed the original protocol and today are announcing the new Windsor Framework. Today’s agreement delivers free-flowing trade within the whole of the United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguard’s sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”

The delays over the UK's membership of the European research programme have prompted criticism from the scientific community, which has been greatly impacted by the lack of access to EU funds. 

Oxford and Cambridge universities alone, which used to receive over £130m a year from European research programmes, are now only being granted £1m annually between them.

Moreover, further criticism was voiced after it was revealed that the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had returned £1.6bn of funds earmarked for science and innovation programmes, including Horizon Europe. 

In response to the new deal, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, called for swift association to Horizon and said delays have “damaged” science across Europe.

“We welcome Ursula von der Leyen’s commitment to progressing association as soon as the Windsor Framework is implemented," Smith said. “It is more than two years since the government agreed association to Horizon Europe, Euratom and Copernicus – two years of delays that have damaged science across Europe.

“These schemes support outstanding international collaboration and the sooner we join them, the better for everyone."

Smith also reported that the Treasury had made an assurance that the £1.6bn underspend that was intended for association to Horizon Europe will be spent in subsequent financial years.

Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at Wellcome, added: “After years of uncertainty, the announcement that work to finalise the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe can begin imminently will come as a massive relief for scientists on both sides of the Channel.”

However, the UK's membership of the programme is not yet definite, as it is dependent upon the implementation of the Windsor Framework, which still has to be approved by both the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland unionists. 

The opposition leader, Kier Starmer, has already said that Labour will support the deal. 

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

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 services such as Space Surveillance and Tracking.  

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles