Catherine Barnard examines the ongoing issues around the UK’s membership of the EU’s Horizon research and innovation programme, and assesses the prospect of the UK acquiring associate status to the scheme in light of the mini-budget and tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The new Prime Minister has a lot on her plate. While the cost of living crisis and the fall out from the mini budget are clearly of paramount importance, for universities associate status – or not – to the Horizon programme is up there too. And associate status is becoming part of the high stakes political game played out by the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. And it may now also be caught up in the fall out from the mini-budget.
Let me explain. Horizon, or to be precise, Horizon Europe, is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of €95.5 billion up to 2027. The jewel in the crown of Horizon is the European Research Council (ERC) programme. The UK has traditionally excelled in winning these prestigious grants. Russell Group Universities received more ERC funding than the whole of France. And the ERC is keen for the UK, with its long history of research excellence, to continue participating in Horizon Europe.
UK-based single researchers want to – and can – still apply for ERC grants. UK-based researchers can also form part of, and coordinate, collaborative research groups (though they will have to give their coordinator status to an EU-based project partner if the UK has not associated by the time of grant award). UKRI encourages UK-based researchers to engage fully with Horizon Europe and, at the moment, the EU is continuing to assess these grants. If UK researchers are successful, the UK government funds the UK costs under its ‘UKRI guarantee scheme’. If the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe and the EU stops assessing the applications then UK applications submitted to funding opportunities that have closed will be assessed by UKRI (so-called ‘in-flight’ applications).
However, UKRI guarantee funding is committed only for calls with a deadline on or before 31 December 2022. And while the government has outlined a range of measures including the UKRI assessment of ‘in-flight’ applications and on-going third-country funding up to the end of March 2025 in the event the UK does not associate, it has taken no decision as to what to do should the current situation of no decision on associate status extend beyond the end of this year.
This may be connected with the proceedings the UK has started against the EU for failure to allow the UK to have ‘associated country status’ in the Horizon programme. Associated country status would give UK researchers equal access to all of the Horizon Europe programmes, with one narrow exception (the loan/equity part of the EIC). Sixteen countries have associate status. Now the Horizon funding may also have be caught up in the government’s plans to cut public expenditure in its attempts to balance the books in the aftermath of the mini-budget.
The Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the agreement which forms the basis for the UK’s trading relations with the EU post-Brexit, expressly contemplates UK participation in programmes such as Horizon Europe. The language is strong and clear. Article 708 says: ‘This Part applies to the participation of the United Kingdom in Union programmes … in which the Parties have agreed that the United Kingdom participates.’ It’s true that no timescale is specified but the mandatory language suggests sooner rather than later.
So why the delay? This is where the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) issues come into play. The NIP forms part of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), the divorce text between the UK and the EU. In order to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, and ensure there was no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Northern Ireland stayed in the EU Customs Union and Single Market for goods. The effect of this was essentially an East/West border (i.e. a border down the Irish sea) and a potential role for EU institutions, including the European Court of Justice, in overseeing the NIP. The UK government has decided this is unacceptable and is currently taking the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB) through parliament. This will turn off a number of provisions in the NIP and give the UK government extensive powers to apply its own system.
All of this has created considerable tensions between the UK and the EU. One manifestation of this is a withdrawal of cooperation. For example, the Partnership Council, the highest joint political body, has not met this year. Another example, according to the UK, is the EU holding out over giving the UK associate status to Horizon. So the UK has now started legal proceedings under the TCA. This is the first time these procedures have been used.
There are three stages to this process. The first is consultation in the Partnership Council. This should take 30 days and it is hoped that the two sides reach a mutually agreed solution. If this does not happen, the case can go to an arbitration tribunal (stage two). The final report should be delivered within 130 days. If the report finds against the EU, the EU is meant to comply (stage three). If the EU does not, the UK can impose tariffs.
But meanwhile, the EU has also started proceedings against the UK for breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol under a different set of rules under the Withdrawal Agreement.
It is against this background that the battle over the UK’s association with Horizon is taking place. There is some more positive mood music: there were talks between the two sides on 22 September about Horizon (delayed following the period of mourning). The bigger question facing the UK is whether the EU thinks a new Prime Minister means a new approach to the EU or whether her Leave supporting Cabinet and her own promotion of the NIPB means any attempts at rapprochement are doomed to fail.
In the meantime, there is some contingency planning being done by UKRI. If the UK does not associate to Horizon Europe, funding will be available for UK applicants to participate in funding opportunities in Horizon Europe as ‘third country’ applicants. Further, if the UK is unable to associate to Horizon Europe, UKRI say ‘the government will introduce a programme of international science, research and innovation collaborations, including immediate measures to stabilise the sector’. However, such measures are unlikely to have the prestige, at least initially, of the Horizon Europe/ERC programme.
By Professor Catherine Barnard, Deputy Director, UK in a Changing Europe.