April 13. 2024. 6:05

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UK plays down prospects of deal on EU Horizon scheme

UK Science and Technology Minister Michele Donelan has said she has little hope for a quick agreement with the EU to finally unblock the UK’s access to the bloc’s Horizon Europe research programme.

In a statement before talks with EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel in Brussels on Tuesday (4 April), Donelan played down the prospect of agreement any time soon, describing the talks as an “introductory meeting with the EU” which would discuss “possible future association with Horizon Europe”.

“We can only do so on the right terms,” the UK minister said.

A separate UK government statement added that the talks with Gabriel would “need to reflect the lasting impact of two years of delays to the UK’s association”.

UK access to Horizon Europe had been included as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which governs EU-UK relations post-Brexit.

However, UK universities and researchers have been shut out of the €95.5 billion programme for more than two years now after the European Commission tied the association status provided for in the TCA to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.

Last summer, the UK government started dispute proceedings against the EU executive for what it said were breaches of the TCA terms, while research organisations across the EU and the UK have repeatedly warned of the lasting damage to projects and research cooperation.

After agreeing in February on the so-called ‘Windsor Framework’, a set of reforms to the Northern Ireland protocol which has now been ratified by the UK and the EU, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would “immediately” start the process of finalising the UK’s associate member status in Horizon.

However, UK officials have taken a more ambivalent stance on Horizon Europe access despite the resolution of the protocol. One UK diplomat in Brussels said that UK researchers “have been quite disadvantaged”, adding that “it’s hard to wave a magic wand and just fix all of that”.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is reported to favour an alternative UK-led programme involving collaboration with non-EU as well as European nations.

Impacts on the EU

The block on UK access has also impacted the EU side.

Earlier this week, EURACTIV reported that shutting out the UK has resulted in a budget shortfall for the European space programme because the UK has not paid €721 million in contributions to the space programme, which is financed by Horizon Europe.

Christophe Grudler, the French Renew Europe MEP in charge of the European Parliament’s space programme file, told EURACTIV that “the UK has to pay the entirety of its contribution since it will eventually benefit from the satellites’ services, as it wishes”.

However, that view is not accepted by the Sunak government and could pose a major barrier to reaching an agreement.

The UK, which had been set to pay around €15 billion in contributions to Horizon, now wants its payments to be amended to take account of the losses accrued by the two-year block on access to the programme.