UK considers next steps as Horizon Europe deadlock continues

Westminster refers to alternatives rather than arbitration, after unproductive Brussels meeting triggered by legal action

September 23, 2022
London Gatwick, March 2nd, 2018 Passengers walks past sign prior to immigration control pass a sign pointing towards queues for UK, EU and Non-EU passport holders. In April 2019, UK is set to leave the European Union - Brexit theme
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A meeting on the UK’s participation in European Union research programmes ended without progress, with the Westminster government signalling a shift towards domestic alternatives.

The meeting was triggered by the UK launching legal action against the EU over its exclusion from the Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom programmes, promised to the country in the 2020 Brexit deal.

“At today’s meeting, the UK once again requested that the EU fulfil its obligation to finalise the UK’s association to EU Programmes after 16 months of delays. It is regrettable that the EU continues to decline this request,” the government said in a statement.

Under the Brexit deal’s complaint procedures, the UK’s mid-August complaint will soon move to arbitration if an agreement cannot be found.

“The UK government is now urgently considering next steps. Our priority is to support the UK’s world leading R&D sector and we have already outlined potential options for doing so,” the government said in its statement. It made no reference to arbitration. An EU official told Times Higher Education that “no further consultation meetings on this topic have been agreed”.

An EU diplomat who attended the two-hour meeting, which saw UK representatives present the country's legal, political and practical positions on programme participation, told THE it was “one of the coldest meetings I've ever been in”. Questions on how the EU will decide on participation received terse answers from the commission, they said.

In July, then business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that the UK’s interim measures would “provide stability and continuity of funding for UK researchers and businesses”. At the start of September, the Westminster government again extended its funding guarantee for UK-based Horizon grant winners to cover EU funding calls closing on or before 31 December 2022.

The guarantee scheme, which launched in November 2021, is supposed to be a stopgap until the European Commission signs off on full UK participation, which it has withheld over disputes about the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and UK prime minister Liz Truss discussed the Northern Ireland Protocol at a United Nations meeting in New York earlier this week, although their joint statement made no mention of progress.

There have long been fears the roughly £2 billion set aside for the UK’s contribution to Horizon could be vulnerable to government cost-cutting.

In mid-September, the Conservative former universities minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone told THE that a “skinnier Plan B rather than a full fat Horizon Europe” would probably be among the options when government spending is “reprofiled”.

“We are currently in the worst of all positions, with a large amount of money committed to either Horizon or Plan B but sitting unspent,” warned the architects of the domestic “Plan B” alternative to Horizon, Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, and Royal Society president Sir Adrian Smith.

The uncertainty for UK researchers is set to continue for now, with Ms Truss’ first “mini-budget”, announced on 23 September, making no mention of the Horizon money.

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