More countries close to joining Horizon, says EU negotiator

UK and New Zealand’s long-awaited association will spur on talks with Canada, South Korea and Japan, according to Signe Ratso

October 30, 2023
Two-hundred-two little rugby players gather at College Rifles Rugby Club in Auckland, New Zealand, as they attempt to break a world record for participating in a rugby scrum. To illustrate countries coming to join Horizon Europe
Source: Alamy
New Zealand has packed down to join Horizon

The UK’s two years of talks that finally resulted in association to Horizon Europe showed how easily research cooperation can become embroiled in domestic and international politics.

Someone who knows this only too well is Signe Ratso, an Estonian with decades of experience in international affairs, who leads all new association talks for the European Commission, handling the myriad complexities that can arise when a country looks to join the €95.5 billion (£83 billion) flagship research scheme.

When the UK does finally rejoin on 1 January 2024, its researchers will, for the first time, be able to lead Horizon projects with counterparts from New Zealand, who joined in July after their own prolonged talks with the European Union.

Ms Ratso has also recently visited Japan and South Korea, which she said were respectively in the early and serious stages of negotiations to join Horizon themselves.

Why did New Zealand sign up while others are still holding back? “There was true bipartisan political agreement, also parallel negotiations with the EU on the Free Trade Agreement,” Ms Ratso, the deputy director general of the research department, told Times Higher Education.

New Zealand is a small player in international research, but it has made partnerships a priority, not least by putting Horizon association in its 2030 research strategy. It has also aligned politically, including adopting sanctions against Russia to align with the EU position on the Ukraine war.

The Kiwi strategy noted that the global challenges and industrial themes of Horizon would align with the country’s as-yet-undefined research priorities. “With each and every partner we find a good alignment with the priorities,” said Ms Ratso, listing climate change, health and digitalisation as examples. “Our programme is very broad, and they are all covered there,” she added.

Negotiations begin with a defined financial contribution from the potential partner. For the first time, Horizon Europe includes an automatic correction mechanism, which ensures outsiders do not pay too much more or less than their researchers win in grants.

Canada had also hoped to join Horizon by spring 2023, but talks seem to have stalled. Ms Ratso said they were in the “final stages” and that both sides were working to the goal of association by 1 January 2024.

“We hope the sweet spot in these negotiations can be found as soon as possible so we can get on with the scholarly and scientific work,” said Chad Gaffield, chief executive of the U15 group of Canadian research universities. “I would’ve thought when New Zealand signed that maybe we’d see a few others,” he said. “For all researchers round the world, we all want this done yesterday.”

Ms Ratso said Canada was in many ways a “natural partner” for the EU, with strong research relationships with France and Germany, but that talks were happening against a backdrop of budget cuts there. “In this context, association to Horizon Europe needs to make sense, but Canada – like other partners – aims at diversifying their research and innovation cooperation,” she said.

The situation has parallels with the talks with South Korea, a country that has sat in second place globally in research and development spending as a share of GDP for more than a decade, but which is recently tightening its belt. “This is a new situation, but against this background they prioritised international collaboration more than before,” said Ms Ratso.

Another big east Asian target, Japan, has not yet committed to full talks. The decision to do so is distributed between a handful of ministries. “We know that in the Japanese system arriving to a decision takes time, but, once the decision is taken, then things can go quite fast,” she said.

“In the Japanese context, high officials usually do not take their positions personally, so it’s teamwork and listening to parliamentary opinions,” said Yuko Harayama, a professor emeritus at Tohoku University and former leading negotiator for Japan in international research agreements.

She said parliamentarians from the ruling Liberal Democratic party were supportive, but that the country was focusing more on research that enabled national security. Horizon only funds research with civilian applications, with non-EU participation in “dual-use” projects currently restricted.

Professor Harayama said a mismatch between the Japanese and European fiscal years had also played havoc with partnerships in the past, an issue that Ms Ratso said was common to all her negotiations.

Ms Ratso said the addition of New Zealand and the UK this year had been brought up by both sides during other talks. “Certainly it makes it more attractive,” she said, referring to Horizon as a whole.

While the programme only runs until 2027, the agreements remain in place for future versions of the scheme, requiring only minor updates to be negotiated. Joining Horizon even for its last year would let a country test-drive its benefits, Ms Ratso said.

Australia has made clear it will not join Horizon, but she said Singapore might open exploratory talks later this year.

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