Scholars in limbo as UK quits European University Institute

Intergovernmental institute says ‘symbolic’ split over full attendance at council meetings led to failure of talks

September 22, 2022
Single person looking out to see to illustrate Scholars in limbo as UK quits European University Institute
Source: Alamy

The UK has ended its participation in the European University Institute (EUI), throwing recently arrived students and staff at the Florence-based research centre into limbo.

The Westminster government said in 2019 that the UK would “automatically” end its 44-year participation in the EUI as part of Brexit, despite this being based in a separate treaty from those governing its European Union membership.

Subsequent talks on how a non-member UK might still participate in the EUI – a social sciences and humanities postgraduate teaching and research institute established by EU member states – failed over disagreements about its role in governance.

“The sad thing about this failure is I think we came close to an agreement,” Renaud Dehousse, the EUI’s president, told Times Higher Education.

Some British staff and students had recently been enrolled by the EUI under a gentleman’s agreement while partnership talks continued.

“Needless to say, they were a bit disconcerted,” he said. “You can imagine they’ve just arrived in Florence a bare three weeks ago, and now they’re told their government pulls out.”

Current arrangements will see the EUI Britons through to the end of the year, but after that their places and positions will depend on the outcome of the next phase of talks between the UK and the EUI.

“I told all the staff and researchers that we should find a way to ensure that they can stay; I think that this is possible, but it takes two to tango,” said Professor Dehousse.

He said the withdrawal phase of the talks would likely be dominated by the UK’s financial liabilities to the institution, particularly its share of salaries and pension contributions.

As a member, the UK chipped in the same amount as Germany, France and Italy, equivalent to about 8 per cent of the EUI’s total budget.

Professor Dehousse said that the partnership talks failed because the UK wanted to regularly attend meetings of the EUI’s highest decision-making body as a non-member, something that other member countries rejected.

“The UK wanted to preserve a presence on the council in question. On their side, the EUI countries said we must draw a line between members and non-members,” he said.

“It’s not by chance we failed to agree on an issue which is perhaps not the most important issue but is symbolically and, therefore, politically important.”

A UK Department for Education spokesperson said both sides had made “significant efforts” to reach an agreement over 18 months of “constructive and detailed” talks. “Our focus now is on confirming the status of UK-funded staff and students at the institute as soon as possible.”

The spokesperson said the government was open to future UK participation in the EUI. Professor Dehousse said the institute’s high council had recently agreed to explore other forms of partnership with non-EU countries, driven in part by wider political conceptions of Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Professor Dehousse said it was “a question of fairness” that British students were able to finish their courses and that “both parties have a moral duty to make sure they can be taught through”.

He said the talks had been “less confrontational” than those on other aspects of post-Brexit relations, yet “both the UK and the EU have acted as if there was a parallel between the UK withdrawal from the European Union and its withdrawal from the institute”.

“We had the ingredients of a good agreement. In a different climate, there was room to hope that we would have succeeded.”

ben.upton@timeshighereducation.com

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