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LONDON — After two years frozen out of European science projects, Britain wants back in — at a bargain price. Brussels is unimpressed.
EU and UK officials are immersed in talks on Britain’s long-delayed re-association with the bloc’s science programmes, including the massive €95.5 billion Horizon Europe funding programme; the Copernicus Earth observation satellite system; and Euratom’s nuclear energy R&D scheme.
Britain formally left the schemes when it quit the EU in January 2020, and negotiations to re-associate as a third country stalled amid the bitter row over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.
Talks finally restarted last month after London and Brussels struck the Windsor Framework deal, with high expectations of a swift resolution. The European Commission confirmed it would not require the UK to pay backdated participation fees for the two years it had missed of the current seven-year Horizon Europe funding initiative.
But the UK government wants a bigger discount. London argues the two-year hiatus has left British-based researchers and businesses in a weakened position compared with their peers across Europe.
Their absence from the first years of the scheme has prevented UK-based scientists from leading multi-country research consortia, they say — an area where historically they have excelled. The overall number of UK applications has also declined due to the ongoing uncertainty.
London insists the post-Brexit discount should therefore be greater than simply two years’ worth of annual contributions. UK civil servants have produced modeling to estimate how much UK-based scientists are likely to win back in grant funding in the final five years of the scheme, and want a further rebate to help fill the gap.
As negotiations continue, UK ministers are even threatening to abandon association with Horizon altogether and push ahead with the domestic “Plan B” drawn up last year, known in Whitehall as Pioneer.
“Association needs to be on the basis of a good deal for the UK,” Paul Scully, the UK minister for tech and digital economy, told a Westminster Hall debate last week. Our discussions will need to reflect the lasting impact of two years of delays to the UK’s association. … Researchers and businesses have missed out on over two years of a seven-year program.”
The suggestion of a further discount has been given short shrift in Brussels so far.
An EU official said the UK has not yet put forward a formal position to the Commission, but added: “We are not going to treat them in a different way to the other third countries. The conditions for association are set out in the [EU-U.K. Trade and Cooperation Agreement] TCA. We are willing not to ask them to pay for the first two years of the program, but nothing else.”
A senior diplomat representing a powerful EU country echoed this message. “They [Britain] really need to make up their mind,” the diplomat told POLITICO. What we don’t accept is any kind of rebate for the United Kingdom, this Margaret Thatcher-style thinking of ‘we want our money back.’ Either they accept it as it is, or they don’t.”
Jamie Arrowsmith, head of the international arm of the Universities UK lobby group, said it was “not unreasonable” for the UK government to ask for both the missed years and the residual impacts to be taken into account, but warned an exact figure would be hard to determine. “How do you put a price on something that is so hard to evidence?” he asked.
The talks are likely to go on for “months,” according to one British official, who said both sides were now eyeing a summer resolution.
This would allow UK-based researchers to bid for the next round of the European Research Council (ERC) awards — Horizon’s crown jewel, and the part of the scheme the UK has traditionally been most interested in.
A Commission spokesperson said the UK would be able to join the EU programs “immediately” after reaching a deal.
“Both sides want to make this work,” the UK official said.
Although the row over cash contributions may take time to resolve, the UK and European science sectors feel optimistic that a deal will be reached after two years of stagnation and despair.
“My understanding is that the EU financial deal is generous and recognizes the two-year hiatus, which was a possible sticking point,” said Nobel Prize winning geneticist Paul Nurse, who runs the Francis Crick Institute in London. So I see no excuse whatsoever not to associate. In fact, if we don’t associate, I see us as drifting off into the cold northeast Atlantic, rather by ourselves.”
“My impression is that we are in a very good place,” added Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy-coordination at the European University Association lobby group, despite the UK “posturing a little bit” over cash payments and “trying to drive a hard bargain.”
He added: “If you are discussing the numbers, then you’re very close to a deal. That means there’s no unsurmountable things you disagree on — you just want to change a little bit the way that the payments are made and how much you’re going to pay.”
According to Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) lobby group, “there’s a lot of flexibility and willingness” on the side of the Commission to welcome the UK back in the EU science schemes.
But he warned Brussels cannot be seen to favor Britain over other third countries also negotiating to join Horizon Europe — including Australia, Canada and Japan — and that “the Commission has always said that we need a uniform approach vis-a-vis association by third countries.”
“All the signs that I get indicate that the UK’s association is now an absolute priority for the Commission and certainly [its President Ursula] von der Leyen — she absolutely wants to get this done now,” Deketelaere said.
Nevertheless, the publication earlier this month of a UK government prospect setting out an alternative plan to the EU science schemes raised eyebrows among research leaders.
Some fear the very existence of the plan, which would be largely funded with the cash set aside by the Treasury to pay for association to Horizon Europe, might strengthen the argument of hard Brexiteers who want Britain to pursue a different path away from EU schemes.
“There are still people within the British government that would prefer a ‘Global Britain’ solution in terms of having a British global research program that was not dependent on the EU,” Jørgensen said. And there are people in the treasury that just want the money back and don’t want to commit all that money.
But “nothing less than association” to Horizon Europe will be enough to fulfill Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s stated ambition of transforming the UK into a global science superpower, argued Labor MP Paul Blomfield, formerly a shadow Brexit minister.
Pioneer “would be better than nothing,” Blomfield said. “But I hope the government’s benchmark is higher than that.”
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