The European Union is blocking British scientists from joining the €95bn European Horizon research programme – the world’s largest – due to disputes over trade in Northern Ireland after Brexit.
The European Union’s ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, said British scientists would be “collateral damage” in the dispute, with the country’s position on the horizon increasingly likely to become “Victims of political gridlock”. “It’s very regrettable,” he added.
The UK was expected to be an associate member of Horizon in the 2020 Brexit deal, but has been delayed by London’s longstanding disagreement with the EU over Northern Ireland. Britain is preparing legislation to clear the way for it to drop part of the deal that governs trade between the region and the British mainland.
The standoff has alarmed UK university leaders, who have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson pleading with him to “intervene personally to break the deadlock” before it’s too late.
In a letter seen by the Financial Times, the Russell Group, which represents 24 research-intensive universities in the UK, said participation in the Horizon project was crucial to achieving Johnson’s goal of making the UK a “science superpower”.
Chief executive Tim Bradshaw said in the letter that Russell Group universities alone have received more than 1,400 European Research Council grants worth 1.8 billion euros, which he said was “more than the whole of France”.
Speaking to reporters in Westminster, Vale de Almeida acknowledged that British scientists had played a key role in Horizon in collaboration with their EU counterparts, and he hoped that would continue.
But he said the “lack of trust” between the EU and Johnson’s government – exacerbated by the UK’s unilateral plan to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol – was having “a negative impact on other areas”.
Commercial Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng prepared An alternative plan is to spend £6bn on a new global science fund over three years if the EU refuses to allow the UK to participate in Horizon. University leaders believe Kwarteng could launch his plan as early as next month.
In a letter to British scientists this week, Kwarteng insisted the dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland and Britain’s participation in Horizon is a “completely different issue, contained in a different agreement”. “We are disappointed by the EU’s politicisation of scientific and research cooperation,” he added.
But the Russell Group warned Johnson that Britain’s granting of Horizon associate membership was “an integral part” of the country’s ability to become a scientific force. It called the programme a “championship of research”.
Separately, Bradshaw wrote to EU Commissioner Marros Shevchovic, who is in charge of discussions with the UK on the Northern Ireland protocol, asking him to intervene. “The UK’s full ties to Horizon are at risk,” he said.
“We fear that much of the previous hard work will go to waste as the UK government prepares its own alternative plan – an outcome that will make things worse for the UK and the EU.”
Vale de Almeida repeated his warning that the EU would not agree to renegotiate the NI deal, which was part of Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, but said it could be implemented more flexibly.
But he warned that Britain’s threat to unilaterally legislate to overturn parts of the deal would make matters worse. “I am concerned about the low level of trust that exists between the EU and the UK,” he said.