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Threat to EU-UK R&D links rises as trade relations sour

Image: Ivan Marc, via Shutterstock

Commission expects “important” week for problem that has research sector expressing urgent concern

The likelihood of the UK associating to the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D programme, as research groups in Europe called for immediately just days ago, seems to be falling with the country and bloc failing to resolve their differences over trade issues.

Association offers the fullest possible participation in the €95.5 billion programme for non-EU countries, and the terms of the UK’s association were agreed in 2020. But the European Commission has refused to finalise the association, referring to disagreements with the UK over trade with Northern Ireland.

On 5 November, the Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič published a statement after meeting the UK minister responsible for the discussions, David Frost. He said that whereas the Commission had “spared no effort” in developing proposals to resolve the Northern Ireland issues, “We have seen no move at all from the UK side.”

Šefčovič said the current week would be “an important one” for resolving the dispute, and warned that if the UK sought to renegotiate the previously agreed protocol on Northern Ireland by triggering its Article 16, there would be “serious consequences”.

He elaborated: “Serious for Northern Ireland, as it would lead to instability and unpredictability. And serious also for EU-UK relations in general.”

Giving a hint of what those consequences might be, Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said over the weekend that the UK triggering article 16 could cause the EU to renege on its broader trade deal with the UK, which includes the terms of Horizon Europe association.

“The trade and cooperation agreement that was agreed between the British government and the EU was contingent on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, which includes the [Northern Ireland] Protocol,” Coveney told RTE. “One is contingent on the other, and so if one has been set aside, there is a danger that the other will also be set aside by the EU.”

According to the Sunday Telegraph, a British newspaper, the UK government is working on domestic alternatives to association to the Horizon Europe programme, as well as the EU’s Earth observation and nuclear research programmes.

The paper quoted what it described as a senior UK government source as saying: “Blocking the UK from joining Horizon is in no one’s interest—we can’t participate and they lose out on our financial contribution. We’re having to look at alternatives in case the EU does block our access, which would be a breach of what we agreed less than a year ago.”

In a joint statement last week, groups representing more than 1,000 European universities and other research organisations warned that the UK not associating to Horizon Europe would cause “a major weakening of our collective research strength and competitiveness”.