The UK should not count on continued access to European Union research funding if it decides to restrict migration from the Continent or to leave the grouping, higher education leaders have warned.
Britain’s relationship with Brussels would be on the same level as Botswana’s if it pulled out, one observer claimed, pouring cold water on hopes that UK universities could secure “associate” status to allow them to continue to receive grants and to take part in the Erasmus+ student exchange programme.
With Prime Minister David Cameron pledging to renegotiate rules on EU immigration to the UK ahead of his promised “in-out” referendum on membership (if the Conservatives are in power after next year’s general election), British ministers have been told to take heed of the treatment of Switzerland.
Although it is not a member of the EU, Switzerland had been classed as an “associate country” for many union-run research programmes, allowing it to access funding, providing that it abided by certain principles, such as the free movement of labour.
Negotiations on extending this to Horizon 2020, the EU’s biggest innovation funding initiative ever, ground to a halt in February after the Swiss – following a referendum – declined to sign a protocol that extended free movement across borders to Croatians.
Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, told Times Higher Education that the message from Brussels was that “you are either in or out”.
“We have seen the signal which the EU has given out in the case of Switzerland, which was a strong one to say ‘you can’t have both, you need to be committed to Europe and all that comes with it’, including mobility,” he said. “You need to sign up for all this. If you don’t, you can’t have the benefits.”
A deal is set to be signed next month that would give Switzerland access to part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research initiative, but it remains excluded from the majority of the funding opportunities in the wake of the referendum on Croatian migration.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (Leru), said he believed that British right-wingers were “counting on” associated membership but argued that it was “very doubtful” this would happen.
“It has been my full conviction that Switzerland has been treated so hard by the EU not because of this referendum alone but to give a signal to member states – ‘look, this is what will happen to you if you leave the union,’ ” Professor Deketelaere said. “If the UK decides to pull out of the union, don’t count on it being able to compensate by getting the status of an ‘associated’ country – the UK will be equal to Botswana or Chile.”
Professor Deketelaere also raised concerns that EU member states were trying to cut €1 billion (£788 million) from the 2015 research budget. This has been opposed by the European Parliament, but Leru has estimated that 600 collaborative projects managed under Horizon 2020 could be affected.
Member states should stick to the commitments they made for Horizon 2020, he said.