End to UK’s Horizon roadblock in sight but deal on money needed

Potential UK-EU deal on Northern Ireland is chance to finalise Horizon association, but UK’s financial contribution ‘will have to be changed’

February 27, 2023
End to UK’s Horizon roadblock in sight but deal on money needed
Source: Getty

A Westminster-Brussels deal on the Northern Ireland protocol would clear the political roadblock to the UK joining Horizon Europe – but fresh negotiations on the country’s financial contribution to the European Union research programme would be required.

The European Commission blocked the UK from finalising a deal on Horizon Europe association until agreement was reached on the wider dispute over Northern Ireland – seen as Brussels using the research programme as a political bargaining chip. But UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was said to be close to reaching a resolution with the commission on the treaty.

“The wider political disagreement over the Northern Ireland protocol has been the big roadblock for getting Horizon done,” said Martin Smith, head of the Wellcome Trust’s Policy Lab. “So resolution of that…should unlock the ability to finalise the UK association to Horizon Europe.”

But given that the terms of the UK’s Horizon association were agreed in a trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) between the UK and EU signed in 2020, there was a need to bring some issues up to date, meaning that association would not necessarily come “the day after” any agreement on Northern Ireland, Mr Smith added.

The seven-year Horizon Europe programme started in February 2021, so the UK would be joining part way through – a complicating factor when it comes to the UK’s financial contributions, which will come to more than £1 billion a year. The Westminster government has been covering the costs of participation for UK researchers via a guarantee scheme.

“The financial contribution will have to be changed,” said Peter Mason, head of global research and innovation policy at Universities UK International. “At the moment, the [TCA] sets out that the UK will contribute towards all seven years of the programme. Now, obviously, the UK won’t contribute towards all seven years, because we’ve effectively paid for our contribution through the guarantee for the last two and a half years.”

There are two elements to association financing: a core contribution and a participation fee for administration. Under the TCA, the administrative fee is set at 0.5 per cent of UK contributions in year one of the programme, increasing gradually to 4 per cent, which leaves a question as to where the fee will be set when the UK joins part way through.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said that if the UK “would like to start negotiating its financial contribution again, then this could lead to waste of time again”.

The hope on reaching agreement on the financial aspect is that “it would be done very quickly”, said Mr Mason.

Meanwhile, there were claims that the UK government had reversed pledges to protect research spending after £1.6 billion of unused funds earmarked for Horizon Europe association in 2022-23 was returned to the Treasury.

Mr Mason said “the loss of this funding is disappointing, but what is most important is that the money is still there for covering the cost of association [in the future], which would be the best outcome for the sector”.

Urging a swift resolution to talks with Brussels, Mr Smith added: “I do worry about patience wearing thin. It has been over two years that we’ve been in this holding pattern.”


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