UK cannot be net beneficiary from research post-Brexit, say MEPs

Disappointment after European Parliament, which must ratify Brexit deal, strikes tougher than hoped for line against the UK

March 8, 2018
Source: Getty

The European Parliament has insisted that the UK should not be a net beneficiary from a post-Brexit research partnership with the European Union, and should be stripped of any “decision-making role” in future framework programmes.

But it has not explicitly tied freedom of movement – a red line for the UK government – to participation in the successor to the Horizon 2020 research programme, raising hopes of a deal.

Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, said that the guidance was not “catastrophic” but “could be better”.

Prepared by the parliament’s Brexit steering committee and released on 7 March, it says that any future relationship could include “UK participation, as a third country, in the EU research and innovation framework programme and in the EU space programmes”.

But it adds the caveat that this must be “without permitting net transfer from the EU budget to the UK, nor any decision-making role for the UK”.

“That is fairly disappointing,” said Dr Jørgensen, and added that it showed a “Scrooge attitude” from the European parliament.

Currently, associate members of Horizon 2020, such as Israel and Norway – who are outside the EU but can fully participate in the programme – pay in an amount pegged to their gross domestic product. How much they get back depends on how well their researchers do in the programme’s competitive funding calls – meaning that, financially, some win and some lose.

If the UK were blocked from winning more money than it paid in – which as an EU member it currently does – this would fly in the face of the present, competitive system, Dr Jørgensen argued. “How can you do that in an excellence-based programme?” he asked.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general to the Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, agreed that the guidelines appeared to show the parliament wanted special, cost-neutral rules if the UK wanted to join future framework programmes. “It’s hard to argue there should be a special case” for the UK that did not apply to associate countries such as Israel, he said.

A Royal Society analysis conducted in 2015 found that the UK received €8.8 billion (£7.8 billion) of EU funding for research between 2007 and 2013, in return for an estimated contribution of €5.4 billion.

In the UK, MPs have also raised concerns that Sam Gyimah, the universities and science minister, is lukewarm over future associate membership. 

However, the European parliament’s proposals do not explicitly link associated membership of future research programmes with freedom of movement as feared, something that Dr Jørgensen said was a “good thing.”

Instead, the parliament suggests that the ease of immigration between the UK and EU “should be at least commensurate to the degree of cooperation” between the two.

There have been fears that the EU would make continued freedom of movement a precondition for associate membership of research programmes. There are no clear rules on this – only conflicting precedents. Israel is an associate member, but does not accept freedom of movement. However, when Switzerland attempted to restrict immigration in 2014, it was partially suspended from the programme.

Although the parliament is not formally involved in talks with the UK, it will have to agree to any withdrawal and future association agreement.

Appearing before the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 6 March, Mr Gyimah said that UK ministers were "not turning our backs" on European research, but he declined to commit to associate membership.

Draft guidelines from the European Council, which represents member state governments and gives EU Brexit negotiators their instructions, were also leaked on 7 March.

However, they were less revealing than the parliamentary guidelines, simply saying that any future UK participation in research programmes should be “subject to the relevant conditions for the participation of third countries”.

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