After the referendum, following years of convoluted negotiations, the nation reaches a settlement with the European Union that sees it maintain free movement of people in order to stay in the single market and to preserve its universities’ access to EU research programmes.
Joyous prospect, many Remain voters in the UK would say. But this, of course, is not going to happen in the UK – not the continuing free movement bit, anyway, and that may mean all the other goodies being snatched off the table.
No, this is Switzerland, where MPs last week backed a “light” implementation of the 2014 referendum vote to restrict immigration ahead of a February 2017 EU deadline that, without a solution, would have seen the nation kicked off the Horizon 2020 research programme.
What the Swiss case does for the UK is again emphasise how the EU is willing to use access to Horizon 2020 and future research programmes as a weapon in much bigger political battles. Horizon 2020, including the highly prestigious European Research Council grants sometimes described as the “Champions League of research”, is a big stick for the EU.
UK universities benefit from about £1 billion a year in EU research funding – as well as ERC prestige and the untold value of international research networks. But whether the UK government sees EU research as a big stick worth bothering about is not at all clear.
The UK could continue to take part in EU research programmes after Brexit, as an associated country – the status that Switzerland has. But would the EU demand that the UK continue to subscribe to free movement as the price of entry?
The bigger political battle for the UK and the EU will, of course, be around the single market and free movement. But the research programmes could be another shell in the EU’s artillery.
It was significant that a Conservative MP, Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Committee, raised this issue in a Commons debate on Brexit and research this week.
He astutely asked of the universities and science minister, Jo Johnson: “The key question is this: do the government intend to seek associate country status for Horizon 2020? That would give us some continuity.”
“These are important questions, which…will form a significant part of the overall discussions around our future relations with the EU,” Johnson replied. “We recognise the benefits of collaboration with European partners, and we will seek to ensure that we can continue to derive strong collaboration arrangements all around the world.”
Perhaps Johnson is fighting hard for continued EU research access in private – and given that he was ardently pro-Remain that wouldn’t be surprising. But that was a flat, non-committal answer reflecting the fact that this is all tied up with free movement issues that can only be resolved, if they can be resolved, at the highest levels of the UK government and within the EU.
The solution agreed by Swiss lawmakers – implementing the referendum verdict by asking employers to advertise jobs to Swiss nationals first before they do so abroad rather than adopting full-blown immigration quotas – was acceptable to the EU. If a comparable British solution rides over the hill in 2017, then it will be another remarkable year.