Threat to pull UK out of Horizon Europe ‘disproportionate’

Obstacles to finalising association agreements for EU’s research programme now removed, say continental observers

June 11, 2021
Hammer and cracked nut

Suggestions the UK could walk out of the European Union’s Horizon Europe programme look “disproportionate”, according to continental observers.

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, an agreement was struck in December 2020 for the nation to join the programme as an associated country. But the full launch of Horizon Europe, originally scheduled to start in January 2021, has been held up by a dispute within the bloc and European Commission over whether associated countries – potentially also including Israel and Switzerland – can join quantum and space research projects. The dispute is grounded in issues around intellectual property and security.

That delay has prompted concern on the UK side. A recent report in The Daily Telegraph suggested the UK government “could threaten to pull out” of Horizon Europe as it believed the association delay was “politically driven” by the EU in response to the wider dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, with the row set to “come to a head” in wider UK-EU talks on 9 June.

The UK government issued a statement following the talks that appeared to refer to that concern, but stopped far short of the sort of drastic action mentioned in the Telegraph article. “The UK encouraged swift progress on the UK’s association to Horizon, Euratom and Copernicus,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, reports have suggested that the European Commission has now dropped the plans to bar associated countries from space and quantum research, seeming to remove the biggest barrier to finalising association deals – a key factor in the whole programme, as the UK will be a significant financial contributor.

Thomas Jørgensen, a senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said suggestions of a UK walkout were “disproportionate and a little out of sync with what happens in Brussels”.

He added that “the commission and member states just agreed for a very lenient approach to UK participation” in “strategically sensitive parts of the programme”, indicating that the EU is “preparing to greet UK association with open arms”.

Any “threats” might play into the hands of those in Brussels who want more restrictions on associated countries, “so it would not make it easier for UK’s friends here”, Mr Jørgensen continued.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said: “The dispute on access of third countries to space and quantum research in Horizon Europe is now resolved, so I expect no delays any more.”

Another factor for Horizon Europe is that Switzerland, like the UK a major research power that would be a big financial contributor, could be shut out of the programme by the EU amid a wider political dispute over Switzerland’s decision to pull out of seven-year talks on creating an overarching trade agreement with the bloc.

“The EU simply cannot afford that the UK would not associate after the Swiss stopped negotiations on their overall agreement, and as a consequence endangered their association to Horizon Europe,” said Professor Deketelaere.

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