The UK government’s determination to sever any relationship with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) could scupper any hope the country's universities have of remaining part of European Union research programmes post-Brexit, it is feared.
UK universities benefit from about £1.2 billion a year in EU research funding, and being part of the EU’s framework programmes for research means UK-based academics are eligible for prestigious European Research Council grants and can join international research consortia funded by the programmes.
But, under agreements that see non-EU member states take part in Horizon 2020 (the current framework programme) as associated countries, participating nations must agree that the ECJ settles any disputes that may arise in relation to grants or within consortia.
After invoking Article 50 and beginning the two-year process of the UK’s exit from the EU, Theresa May repeated in an interview with the BBC that the government wanted to “make sure that we are ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”.
The UK government decided to withdraw from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of Brexit because the ECJ has jurisdiction over the programme.
“Although Euratom was established in a treaty separate to EU agreements and treaties, it uses the same institutions as the EU including the Commission, Council of Ministers and the Court of Justice”, the government’s Brexit White Paper says.
Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said it “follows therefore that because Horizon 2020 and similar programmes [have] disputes handled within the European Court of Justice", it was “difficult to see” how a solution could be found that “allows continued participation” unless the government “turns out to be more flexible” on the ECJ in relation to research.
“Not being in EU research programmes is enormously significant for the British university sector,” said Professor Husbands.
However, he was optimistic that the government recognised it would have to replace any lost EU research funding.
“Although I am clearly…as all vice-chancellors are, incredibly worried about this, my assumption is…that government does, by and large, get that it’s going to have to invest in research and knowledge creation, and therefore there’s some reasonable confidence there will be other funding sources,” he said.
It is thought that some UK sector leaders would be reluctant to push for the UK to join Framework Programme 9, the successor to Horizon 2020, if it is seen as shifting the emphasis to scientific “capacity building” in poorer EU nations rather than funding “excellence” – seen as beneficial for the UK.
There is also optimism among them about the possibilities for negotiating an association agreement for the next framework programme that relaxes the stipulations around the ECJ.
But current Horizon 2020 agreements also require parties to be open to potential scrutiny by the European Court of Auditors and the European Anti-Fraud Office, which could prove problematic to the UK government as well.
Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said that it was “important to know how limited this role is” for the ECJ in EU research.
“It’s not that the UK will continue to be under the ECJ – it’s a case of normal international arbitration," he said. “If you do something in collaboration with foreign partners, then you have to agree on, if there is an issue, where’s the court you go to.”
Dr Jorgensen added: “If you have goodwill, you can solve these issues. And the higher education and research issues are really among the least complicated [in Brexit].”