‘Clean break’ Brexit plan triggers fears for EU research deal

Shift in alignment towards US sparks doubts over Horizon Europe association

September 12, 2019

Boris Johnson’s apparent desire for a “clean break” Brexit and wish to align with the US rather than the European Union have sparked fears that the UK may opt against joining the bloc’s next research programme.

The resignation as universities minister of Jo Johnson, who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, has added to fears about the government’s position on negotiating access to Horizon Europe, which starts in January 2021.

Joining the programme is likely to require the UK to pay the EU more than €7 billion (£6.2 billion) over the course of the seven-year programme, and could be jeopardised by a no-deal Brexit that poisons UK-EU relations.

Sir Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, suggested a broader shift under the Boris Johnson government towards looser alignment with the EU on issues such as defence could mean a “massive pivot away from a common regulatory framework, a common research base”.

Jo Johnson “may have started to realise that the chances of holding the sector in the European research space after a Boris Johnson Brexit were looking pretty slim”, he said. “And I think that’s a massive, massive challenge for us.”

Assurances that the UK government will seek association to the EU’s research programme date back to Theresa May’s government, and have “not come in the last six weeks from central government”, Sir Chris said. “The increasing sense is that what government wants to look for is a clean break.”

Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow universities minister, criticised the government’s failure to “produce anything...that would keep the sector feeling less apprehensive about a no-deal Brexit”.

“If no deal means our relationships with the EU end in discord and ugliness and we’re obliged to put more, or all, our eggs in the US basket, we become much less attractive as a global link mechanism” in research, Mr Marsden added.

But Lord Willetts, a former Conservative universities minister who backs a second EU referendum, said that there was “still a strand of pragmatism in the Conservative government” and there were “Brexiteers who can still see the value of research links to Europe and attracting students from around the world”.

“The paradox is that although a lot of us in the university and research community are worried about a hard Brexit, when it comes to universities and science the Boris Johnson government is actually quite pro; in many ways more pro than Theresa [May],” Lord Willetts said.

Jo Johnson announced that he would also stand down as an MP at the next election following a purge of moderate Tory MPs who opposed a no-deal Brexit. He said that serving in his brother’s government created an “unresolvable tension” between “family loyalty and the national interest”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Hard Brexit plan triggers fears for EU research deal

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