Free trade talks put Australia at front of Horizon Europe queue

Negotiations set to boost access to €100 billion research and innovation scheme, scholar says

July 23, 2018
Cargo ship
Source: Getty

Australian moves to unshackle trade with Europe dovetail with preparations for the continent’s most ambitious research funding scheme yet, according to a University of Melbourne expert in free trade agreements.

Australia’s negotiations for a free trade agreement with the European Union coincide with the development of Horizon Europe, the EU’s €100 billion (£89 billion) successor to the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Gabriele Suder, a professorial fellow with the Melbourne Business School, said that the agreement would extend beyond a narrow focus on goods and tariffs to encompass services and the reduction or elimination of non-tariff barriers.

Professor Suder noted that Australian universities already benefited from European research and mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships, and said that the new agreement would likely “bring us into even closer partnership”.

She said that the agreement could give Australia access to initiatives including the proposed European Innovation Council – a €10 billion fund to scale up breakthrough technologies – and new opportunities for joint research into challenges such as cancer and clean transport.

“These things need to be tackled at an international level, and Australia is expected to be better able to tap into that,” she said. “Horizon Europe is a great opportunity for Australia. It is not the key driver for negotiating a FTA, but it’s one of the very positive potential outcomes.”

The European Council agreed to open free trade agreement negotiations with Australia and New Zealand in May, a fortnight before the European Commission tabled its proposals for Horizon Europe. The commission wants a long-term budget for the scheme approved next year, ahead of its commencement in 2021.

The proposals draw on last year’s report by Pascal Lamy, a former World Trade Organisation chief, which said that international research cooperation through the scheme should be opened to more partner countries.

The Lamy report highlights Australia as a partner of “a similar level of excellence” to EU member states. “Future EU research and innovation programmes should be governed by excellence, not confined to a particular part of the world,” it said.

A potential sticking point is that Horizon Europe research funding will be conditional on “reciprocal co-funding or access to funding in the partner country”. Australia’s education minister, Simon Birmingham, has ruled out changing current research funding arrangements, saying that the government already supports overseas collaborations but is focused on Australian research.

However, Europeans are already able to apply to competitive programmes run by Australia’s two main research funding agencies. Its National Health and Medical Research Council also co-funds collaborative projects supported by Horizon 2020.

Whether this will satisfy Horizon Europe requirements for reciprocal funding remains to be seen, with the scheme not yet endorsed and the free trade agreement negotiations expected to take at least a year. But Professor Suder said that the agreement was also likely to boost Australian-European research by offering freer movement of researchers and their facilities, mutual recognition of qualifications and a more harmonious approach to issues such as intellectual property and publication royalties.

She said that the agreement could pave the way for Australian university branch campuses in Europe, and vice versa. A “handful” of European institutions already aspired to establish physical presences Down Under, she said.

They were attracted mainly by the quality of Australian education and research, its “gateway function” in the Asia-Pacific region and international experience for their current students, not simply a desire to enrol locals.

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