For our weekly editorial by UACES on euradio, the University Association for Contemporary European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Dr Cleo Davies, from the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom.
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Earlier this month, on 7 September, it was announced that the United Kingdom finally joined the European research programme “HORIZON” again.
That’s right. The UK becomes the seventeenth non-EU member state country to be associated to the EU’s flagship funding programme for research and innovation, alongside countries like Israel, Norway, Türkiye, Tunisia and Ukraine. With negotiations either finalised or ongoing with New Zealand, South Korea, Canada and Morocco amongst others, the UK’s research institutions and researchers are being plugged back into the world’s largest research programme.
So that puts an end to an uncertainty which lasted three years.
It’s because the UK’s continued association post-EU membership got entangled in the politics of Brexit.
Participation in Union Programmes was negotiated in 2020 as part of the future UK-EU relationship and included in the “TCA”, the “Trade and Cooperation Agreement”. It was not a sticking point during the negotiations. But whilst the terms of participation were agreed in the TCA, the details were not adopted because the EU only agreed in December 2020 on its Multiannual Financial Framework, and had not yet finalised the programme’s legal framework. Instead, two draft protocols were part of a Declaration attached to the TCA in which both parties stated their ‘ambition that UK entities would be able to participate from the beginning of the programmes’.
But that was not the case.
No. When in March 2021, the UK government announced the extension of grace periods under the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, in a unilateral move and without first informing its European counterpart via the governance structures of the Withdrawal Agreement, levels of trust between the EU and the UK reached a new low point. The EU looked for ways to apply pressure. It took the decision to halt progress on finalising the provisions for association to Union programmes, in spite of its own interests. Indeed, not only were UK research institutions major partners for EU-based institutes, but fragmenting research capacity also goes against the very purpose and principles of Horizon Europe.
Nevertheless, to ensure continuity and avoid uncertainty, UK research institutions and researchers were able to apply to the first calls under Horizon Europe. Furthermore, the UK government launched the Horizon Europe Guarantee in November 2021 to plug the gap in funding for successful bids in the first wave of calls.
Did the famous Windsor Framework, signed earlier this year, have an impact on the situation?
It certainly broke the deadlock in EU-UK relations, also paving the way for a resolution on the UK’s association to Union Programmes. But it took another six months.
Once again, the politics of Brexit threatened to derail finalising the UK’s participation in Union programmes.
In April, just as discussions had resumed, the UK government published its provisions for an alternative to the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, the so-called Pioneer Prospectus. With the UK concerned to secure ‘value-for-money’, Brussels was getting weary over the UK’s perceived attempts to renegotiate terms agreed in the TCA. In July 2023, amid rumours that a deal with the EU had been agreed, Rishi Sunak delayed his decision further, weighing the pros and cons of the UK’s alternative. Had the Pioneer Prospectus been rolled out, it would have set the UK on a different path and made association to the EU programme less likely.
So what does this all mean concretely?
The UK joins Horizon Europe and the Copernicus Programme. It will have access to EU Space Surveillance and Tracking services. UK researchers will be able to access Horizon Europe funding from 2024 work programmes and onwards until 2027. They will be hoping that by then, UK-EU relations will have further normalised, avoiding any future prospect of a repeat of the delays and uncertainty of the past two and a half years.