Swiss face ‘huge challenge’ securing timely EU research deal

Talks unlikely to take place until referendum clarifies whether country will undergo its own ‘Brexit moment’

November 1, 2019
climbing in Switzerland
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Switzerland faces a “huge challenge” to join the European Union’s next research programme in time for its start in 2021 and risks repeating the experience of missing out on leading researchers, according to the leader of the nation’s university grouping.

Switzerland is an associated country in the EU’s current research programme and is hoping to also join the next programme, Horizon Europe.

Michael Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich and Swissuniversities, told Times Higher Education that until the EU has agreed all the details on Horizon Europe, “including final budget and association rules, it’s hard to start discussing under which conditions Switzerland could be associated”.

Some fear that delays in agreeing those association rules mean it is already too late for nations hoping to associate to Horizon Europe to join the programme in time for its start in January 2021.

The Swiss outlook on association has comparisons and contrasts with that of the UK, which is also hoping to associate to Horizon Europe post-Brexit.

For Switzerland, the outlook is further complicated by the fact that agreement on a new framework simplifying EU-Swiss relations has not been reached, owing to concerns on the Swiss side. Now those talks are on hold until a Swiss referendum on ending the free movement of people from the EU is held in May 2020 – described as Switzerland’s potential “Brexit moment”.

The EU has previously used research association as a bargaining chip in wider political talks with Switzerland.

“Politically it seems unlikely we will get very attractive conditions [on association] until the issue of this framework agreement has been settled,” said Professor Hengartner.

For Switzerland, he added, there will be “no concrete negotiations [on association] with the EU until, I would say, May” after the referendum – where backing the end of free movement would also cancel all bilateral agreements with the EU. Such a result would almost certainly mean Switzerland not being able to join Horizon Europe.

But even if voters back continued free movement, there could still be problems. “Of course, starting to discuss [association] in May 2020 makes it a huge challenge to be done by January 2021,” said Professor Hengartner. “It could be that we start [the programme] not being fully associated. And then we’ll adjust.”

Chris Skidmore, the UK’s universities and science minister, has suggested that its association talks are unlikely to begin until the second quarter of 2020.

Switzerland’s access to the EU’s research programme was severely restricted for two years after 2014, when voters backed limits on free movement in a referendum.

That period of exclusion “hurt”, said Professor Hengartner. “We’re now recovering, so it would be very unfortunate to relive that. But it cannot be excluded at this point.”

He added that the “biggest damage” from the previous exclusion was Switzerland being unable to participate in the EU’s prestigious European Research Council. “It makes Swiss institutions less attractive to people who are candidates for such ERC grants,” he said.

Asked if there were any fears that previous plans by some eastern European MEPs to have associated countries excluded from mono-beneficiary grants, such as the ERC, could be revived, Professor Hengartner said: “We hope not, we think it would weaken the reputation of, and the excellence of, that pillar…It cannot be excluded, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

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