Brussels drive to ‘punish’ UK could end membership of EU research

Free movement and ECJ jurisdiction seen as potential stumbling blocks at Russell Group's meeting with MEPs

June 5, 2017
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The hard way: ‘it is not only about Horizon 2020. It’s whether the European Commission thinks Britain must be ­punished’

UK universities’ chances of staying in European Union research programmes will come down to whether senior figures in Brussels seek to “punish” Britain in the Brexit negotiations, according to a German MEP.

Hans-Olaf Henkel, a former president of the Leibniz Association of non-university German research institutes, was among a group of seven MEPs who met with leaders of Russell Group universities in Brussels on 30 May to discuss future UK-EU relations in research.

While there is no certainty yet over whether the UK government will seek to remain part of the EU’s framework programmes for research as an associated country post-Brexit, there is much at stake, since UK universities benefit from about £1.2 billion a year in EU research funding. Being part of EU framework programmes means that UK-based academics are eligible for prestigious European Research Council grants and can join European research consortia.

Brexit negotiations would have to cover not only the UK’s continued membership in the current framework programme, Horizon 2020 – which runs to the end of 2020, after the March 2019 date for the UK to exit the EU – but its involvement in the successor programme.

Mr Henkel, a former president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), the equivalent of the UK’s CBI, said that a British MEP present had told the meeting that “the British government may do all sorts of things, but on two things they will not yield: one is freedom of movement and the other one is the jurisdiction of the European Court [of Justice] over Britain”.

Mr Henkel added: “If they [the UK government] continue to take that line the [European] Commission may threaten them and say, ‘Well, then you cannot participate in Horizon 2020.’ And I think that is wrong on the part of the Commission.”

Mr Henkel represents a Eurosceptic party, the Liberal Conservative Reformers, which split from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in 2015.

He also said: “It is not only a Horizon 2020 issue, it becomes an issue in all sorts of deals the UK has. The question is whether the European Commission believes, or the [European] Council believes – and they don’t like me pointing it out so simply, but it is simple – whether they believe Britain must be punished.”

Under agreements that see non-EU member states take part in Horizon 2020 as associated countries, participating nations must agree that the ECJ settles any disputes that may arise in relation to grants or within consortia – seen as a minor, technical issue by sector experts on the Continent.

While a nation such as Israel is currently part of Horizon 2020 as an associated country without subscribing to free movement, there have been suggestions that the EU could tie similar status for the UK to the issue.

Mr Henkel said that he would “have nothing against giving Britain the same access to [Horizon] 2020 without Britain having to promise freedom of movement”.

He added that at the meeting, he had “promised” to ask the major German research organisations and representatives of German universities “to push [Angela] Merkel very strongly on the fact that British continuation in [Horizon] 2020 is in the interests of Germany”.

Michael Arthur, the provost of University College London, said after the meeting that while “no one is understating the scale of the challenge Brexit presents”, there was goodwill on both sides that should allow universities “to approach negotiations in a positive frame of mind”.

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