UK launches legal dispute against EU over Horizon exclusion

Hopes that formal escalation of a prolonged political stand-off will finally allow UK-based researchers to participate in EU programmes

August 17, 2022
London, Uk - Circa June 2019 People's Vote campaign signs with messages Brexit Nobody voted to be poorer and We already have the best deal
Source: iStock

The UK government has launched legal action against the European Union over its exclusion from the Horizon Europe, Copernicus, and Euratom programmes, promised to the country as part of its Brexit deal a year and a half ago

The EU has 10 days after the complaint is delivered to respond under a formal process that begins with political discussions between the two sides. 

In a statement, the UK’s foreign secretary and frontrunner to be its next prime minister, Liz Truss, said the bloc was in “clear breach” of the deal and “repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalise access to these important programmes”. 

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said he hoped launching the legal action “will help resolve the current impasse”. He said that “despite the delays, securing the UK’s full association to Horizon Europe remains the best outcome for both the UK and the EU”. 

UK-based researchers have been unable to receive funding from the programme, with the government providing substitute funding for those that succeeded in winning grants.

The EU has linked its refusal to give final sign-off for access to the programmes to its ongoing customs dispute over Northern Ireland, launching its own legal complaint, which the UK government has said it will respond to by September, when a new prime minister will have been named. 

If the two sides fail to find a good faith agreement in 30 days the Horizon complaint will move on to arbitration, presided over by three independent experts in law and international trade.

The tribunal must then produce a final report within 160 days, or 80 if the case is deemed urgent. If either of the parties do not comply with that ruling the other may then seek compensation or take retaliatory measures.

Universities on both sides of the Channel have long argued for the EU to sign-off on UK participation in Horizon. Kurt Deketelaere, president of the League of European Research Universities, told Times Higher Education the “obsessive stubbornness” of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had “really caused” the legal action.  

“Although I have no sympathy for the UK position on the Northern Ireland protocol, the European Commission has been completely wrong in tackling the UK association to Horizon Europe,” he said.

David Lammy, the opposition Labour party’s shadow foreign secretary, said both sides “need to show more flexibility”, but laid blame for the exclusion with the government’s “reckless and law-breaking approach”. “The next prime minister should sit down with all parties to ease the tensions and find agreement in the national interest,” he said.

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