Delays in striking a Brexit agreement may leave the UK outside the European Union’s multibillion-euro research programme when it starts in 2021, while a no-deal exit could see British researchers excluded for the entire duration of Horizon Europe, sector leaders have warned.
The possibility that the UK could leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a statement of intent on future trade relations has been given an extra edge recently, with Westminster-Brussels talks hitting their rockiest period yet and Conservative Brexiteers intensifying their criticism of Theresa May’s strategy.
The UK’s membership of the current Horizon 2020 programme means that British universities benefit from about £1.2 billion a year in funding, the ability to join international research consortia funded by the programme and eligibility for highly prestigious European Research Council grants.
Ms May has said that the UK “would like the option” to become an associate member of Horizon Europe, the next seven-year framework programme, in exchange for a fee expected to be between €1 billion (£884 million) and €2 billion a year. But a no-deal Brexit could derail that. And even with a deal, there are fears that an association agreement may not be in place for the start of Horizon Europe in 2021.
Michael Arthur, president of UCL, said that any application by the UK for associate membership in research after a no-deal Brexit “would then be occurring against the background of more political difficulty”. There would be no guarantee that an association agreement would be reached “and it would probably take a lot longer” to reach one, he said.
There would be a “significant gap” in the UK’s framework programme participation of “probably as much as a year” in such a scenario, Professor Arthur continued.
But he also warned that “a gap could occur even if there is an agreement” between the UK and the EU on the wider Brexit deal.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, agreed, pointing out that the proposed €94 billion (£83 million) budget and rules of Horizon Europe are yet to be finally agreed in the European Parliament, and a UK-EU association agreement would take “easily a year” to negotiate and draft after that.
“Even if the UK were able to associate to the framework programme, they would potentially miss the start of the programme,” he said. “This is…something that UK universities will have to take into account.”
Ms May has also said that the UK wants “a far-reaching science and innovation pact with the EU, facilitating the exchange of ideas and researchers”.
But Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s higher education minister, highlighted that it was “increasingly likely that the UK government will need a wider agreement around the next European Union multiannual financial framework [the EU’s overall budget] with the European Commission before it can make a deal on a wider science and innovation accord”.
“A deal on the science and innovation accord will need to be closed before an agreement on association with Horizon Europe and other key programmes can be put in place,” Mr Lochhead added.
UK universities are stepping up their contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit in light of the increasing political uncertainty.
Professor Arthur, who said that UCL has a Brexit mitigation group, highlighted damage to recruitment and retention of EU staff and students as being among key potential impacts of a no-deal Brexit.
While it is widely expected that in the future, EU students will face the same full fees as non-EU students and no longer have access to UK government loans, Professor Arthur said that a deal with the EU would allow potential fee rises and loss of loan access to come in “after the end of the implementation period”, giving “time to adjust”.
Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, said that his institution was “trying to prepare as an individual university” for the potential outcomes of no-deal Brexit “and I believe others are also engaged in intensive planning. However, it’s important to stress that not all risks of a ‘no-deal’ scenario can be fully mitigated. For instance, risks to imported supplies and travel disruption cannot be avoided.”
Professor Deketelaere highlighted further cause for UK concern about Horizon Europe in the stance taken by one of the two European Parliament rapporteurs leading talks on shaping the programme’s rules, Romanian MEP Dan Nica.
Mr Nica, seen as pushing for eastern European nations to gain a bigger share of research funding, has proposed an amendment to the European Commission’s plans that would see associated countries excluded from the pillar of Horizon Europe that includes ERC grants.
Professor Deketelaere added of the prospects for UK association: “As long as we don’t have clarity over Brexit, as long as we don’t have approval for Horizon Europe, things cannot move ahead.”