The UK would “still like to explore the option” of joining the European Union’s next research funding programme post-Brexit, but talks cannot begin yet and might last up to a year, according to the country’s new universities and science minister.
Chris Skidmore’s comments – which may sharpen fears that the UK will be unable to reach an agreement in time for the start of Horizon Europe in 2021 – came in evidence to peers conducting an inquiry into the implications of Brexit for UK participation in the EU’s student mobility and research programmes.
Mr Skidmore, making his first public appearance since his appointment last month, told the House of Lords EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee that he had already held a “very positive” meeting with Carlos Moedas, the EU commissioner for research, science and innovation.
The minister stressed his understanding that the UK’s involvement in EU research was not just about funding, but “about that research connectivity and ensuring we maintain those relationships” with European partners.
But he said that the European Commission would not take part in detailed negotiations until it has “certainty on the UK’s position – whether that is no-deal, or whether that is deal”.
Nevertheless, Mr Skidmore said that the meeting with Mr Moedas had been important to ensure “that we have the channels ready to go on either scenario”.
Additionally, Mr Skidmore said, the EU will not begin talks with the UK on research association until it ceases to be a member state. So “we’d have to begin the discussions on associate member status as of 30 March, the point at which we exit the European Union”, he added.
The minister said that “the actual process by which associate membership can be established or negotiated is something that will take a matter of months, if not up to between nine months to a year. It’s worthwhile reflecting on that timescale for delivery of associate membership.”
In reality, the timetable may be further delayed by European Parliament elections and the appointment of a new commission later this year – with some fearing that the UK will not be able to reach a deal in time for the start of Horizon Europe in January 2021.
Mr Skidmore also noted that the EU has not yet finalised the regulations for Horizon Europe, including the deals on offer to associated countries. A British MEP has warned that associated countries could yet be excluded from highly prestigious European Research Council grants.
“Details still need to be worked out here [on the EU side],” said Mr Skidmore. “But we would still like to explore the option of association to Horizon Europe as part of our continuing relationship.”
He also said that whether the UK will be “able to be granted associated status in Horizon Europe I’m unable to tell you, apart from to say we will work towards that as our common goal”.
The next Erasmus programme also begins in 2021. Mr Skidmore said that his office had been in contact with the office of the EU commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, Tibor Navracsics, to “discuss arrangements” on Erasmus.
But as to whether the UK would be able to secure “full programme status” or “partner status”, “we simply are not in a position to be able to hypothecate what our position would be, apart from to want to open up to that deep and special partnership that the prime minister [talked about] in the Article 50 letter”.