Brexit: could UK join EU research system as ‘associated country’?

What the UK can learn from examples of non-EU nations in Horizon 2020

July 2, 2016
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After the Brexit vote, Universities UK’s board immediately set a priority of lobbying the Westminster government to negotiate “associated country” status in European Union research programmes in the event that the nation does leave the bloc.

But is associated country status a second-best option? And what can the current associated country examples teach the UK?

The 15 non-EU member nations that take part in Horizon 2020, the EU’s current framework programme for research, as associated countries include states that are within the single market as participants in the European Economic Area (EEA) and/or European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and subscribe to freedom of movement, along with countries that remain outside the single market and do not have freedom of movement with the EU.

These countries have varying relationships with Horizon 2020, and there is no single “associated model”, said Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association. “The reality of it is, it’s all up to negotiations – every little bit can be negotiated,” he said.

There would be “a bill to pay” for the UK if it wished to become an associated country, a payment calculated partly on the basis of gross domestic product, but partly subject to negotiation, he continued.

Dr Jorgensen also noted that associated countries are “not in the [European] Council, they are not in the [European] Parliament…they have no say in the size of the [research] budget”.


Norway is a member of the EEA and the EFTA, meaning that it is subject to the “four freedoms” of the single market – the free movement of goods, people, services and capital.

In the EU research and innovation programme that ran between 2007 and 2013, Norwegian researchers contributed to more than 1,400 projects, receiving a total of €712 million (£587 million), according to the European Commission.

Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo, said that the country’s universities have not suffered from being outside the EU because the country is a “full member when it comes to research and education”.

“We have the same possibilities within the framework programme, for instance, and also within the system for student exchange,” he said.

“Britain can perhaps negotiate a model that resembles the one that we have with the EU when it comes to research and education. It’s a very good model.”


Israel’s relations with the EU are framed in the European Neighbourhood Policy, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean. There is no free movement of people between Israel and the EU. However, the relationship does incorporate free movement of goods.

Israel was the first non-European country to be associated with the EU’s previous framework programme; it received €780 million in research funding and contributed more than €530 million to the programme.

Rosemary Hollis, professor of international politics at City University London, said that Israel’s “enhanced” association agreement with the EU as a whole means that the country receives the same benefits as a full member, but without the membership.

“I wonder whether Israel is the example of what Britain might be headed towards, in terms of having a free trade agreement. It means Israeli exports to the EU are tariff-free, and it includes participation in science and technology research,” she said.


Switzerland is not a member of the EEA, but is a member of the EFTA – meaning that it is part of the single market and is required to accept free movement.

Under the EU’s previous framework programme, there were 4,269 project participations from Swiss researchers, including project coordination on 972 of those. The Swiss government paid the EU SFr2.3 billion (£1.7 billion) in contributions, but Swiss researchers earned the larger sum of almost SFr2.5 billion in funding.

In 2014, Swiss voters backed tougher restrictions on immigration, so the government subsequently refused to ratify a free movement deal with new EU member Croatia.

After the vote, the EU temporarily suspended talks with Switzerland over its participation as an associated country in the union’s Horizon 2020 research and Erasmus+ student mobility programmes. It now has a “partial association” in the former and remains outside the latter.

The EU’s conditions mean that Switzerland “needs to ratify free movement for Croatia”, said Dr Jorgensen. “If that is not done before 2017, Switzerland is out [of Horizon 2020].”

The UK lobbying group Scientists for EU argued before the referendum that the Swiss case shows that should the UK leave the EU and restrict freedom of movement, “it will have no access to Horizon 2020 beyond third country status (Afghanistan, Argentina etc.)”.

But Dr Jorgensen said: “It would be very premature to say mobility was an issue in Switzerland, so mobility will be a precondition [of EU research programme access] for Britain as well. That’s very much guesswork.”


Turkey is not a member of the EEA or the EFTA; it is thus not a member of the single market, and there is no freedom of movement between Turkey and the EU.

Under the previous EU framework programme, Turkish researchers participated in about 1,000 projects and received almost €200 million in EU funding.

Dr Jorgensen said that while the absence of free movement with the EU is not generally a problem for researchers, Turkey does have “strange visa issues with some European countries – some are visa-free, some are not…If you’re a German researcher, you’re fine with Turkey; you can just go in, they’ll stamp your passport. If you’re Irish, it’s another deal.”

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, suggested that the Turkish example was not particularly instructive for the UK, which is “of course not only going to sign a research agreement but also an agreement for access to the single market – and that will lead to the obligation for free circulation of researchers and people in general”.

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Print headline: ‘Associated country?’ How might the UK join the EU research system post-Brexit?

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