The UK’s bid to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme, expected to be one of the early “wins” of the recent Northern Ireland trade deal, is threatened by a dispute over money.
UK scientists say membership of the €95.5bn programme is vital for research and investment in science but Britain has been blocked from the scheme since 2021 because of a row over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.
With London and Brussels hailing a new chapter in relations after the Windsor framework on Northern Ireland trade arrangements was finalised last week, readmission to Horizon seemed likely.
But the UK argues that its annual contribution to the seven-year programme should be reduced because its late entry has diminished the value of programme’s returns.
“The EU’s delays over the last two years have had a damaging and lasting impact on UK R&D,” said a UK government spokesperson. “Discussions on a way forward will need to reflect the financial reality that we have missed over two years of the seven-year programme.”
As members of Horizon until 2020, British institutions received research grants worth roughly the same as their government’s contribution. Once blocked from the programme, UK researchers could participate in, but not lead, Horizon-funded projects, with their work funded directly by London.
However, the UK contribution to EU programmes such as Horizon is set under the terms of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Under the terms of the TCA, the UK must contribute an amount proportionate to the size of its economy, which is around 18 per cent of that of the EU, according to statistics agency Eurostat.
Britain had been expected to contribute £15bn for the full seven-year programme. The Financial Times calculates that according to the TCA, the pro rata fee for the remaining years of the programme, which ends in 2027, could add up to as much as €11bn — equivalent to £9.7bn — depending on when the UK rejoins Horizon.
Neither the UK nor the European Commission would confirm the figure. But reducing London’s contribution would involve reopening the TCA, something Brussels refuses to countenance.
British ministers argue that Brussels should cut Britain a fair financial deal.
Allies of Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, have confirmed he is considering taking Britain back into Horizon but say he is “sceptical” about the programme and has asked science minister George Freeman to look into a Plan B, based on global collaboration.
But academics are demanding to rejoin the programme. This month 18 research bodies issued a joint demand for London and Brussels to get Britain’s readmission “swiftly over the line, finally ending the damaging impasse”.
Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents the sector, said she was “delighted” talks were beginning and that she understood the EU had accepted “reasonable adjustments” to the cost to UK should be made.
More than 40 countries are associated with Horizon, and EU diplomats say they have to be fair to other late joiners such as New Zealand. “To change the payment amount you would have to reopen the TCA. That is a no go,” said one.
Similar financial arguments will dog negotiations for the UK to join other EU programmes such as Copernicus, an earth-monitoring satellite system, and Euratom, the nuclear energy body.
The commission said: “At the EU-UK Partnership Council on March 24, the European Commission and the UK government reaffirmed their desire to exploit fully the potential of the TCA, and maximise the potential of the relationship between the EU and the UK in ways that benefit both parties.”
Talks are expected to begin after Easter and aim to secure an agreement by June.