Could conflict over the Northern Ireland Protocol sink UK-EU research collaboration?

The latest statement and the ‘Swiss precedent’ are not promising.

Photo – Ben Dracup Flickr

Since Brexit, the UK has been seeking ‘association status’ in Horizon, the EU’s flagship science and research programme. With a budget of €95.5 billion the scheme enables access to funds and international collaboration between academics and scientists from across the continent.

The process of joining Horizon was previously regarded as a formality. UK-based researchers and institutions have been able to apply for programmes in the meantime with the expectation that the status would be granted.

Recent comments from Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Research, have, however, thrown this into question. She pointed out wider disagreements between the UK and EU would put research cooperation at risk:

“Association is a thematic subject, and I am confident that we are ready to tackle it as soon as possible, but transversal issues need to be tackled first.

“I think that it is important on our side to confirm our opinion to advance on association, but only after the framework is agreed by both sides.”

In other words, the agreement on Horizon access would have to wait until the UK and EU completed their wider negotiations. At the heart of these disagreements is the Northern Ireland Protocol. So, the implication is that these issues have to be resolved before science and research collaboration could move any further forward.

The Swiss precedent

Currently, UK researchers and institutions can still apply for Horizon grants. During the Brexit negotiations, the government had promised to step in and provide funds to successful projects should the UK fallout of the Horizon programme due to a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU. But researchers who have applied for grants will clearly be anxious for this principle to be adhered to again, if the EU suspends the UK from the programme.   

Switzerland offers an uncomfortable precedent for the UK’s Horizon problem. The country is currently suspended from the scheme with institutions and researchers unable to apply for funds. This is due to stalled talks over Swiss-EU bilateral relations, and a delay to processing Swiss payments into the Horizon budget. As a result, the Swiss government have had to release €370m in funds to support the continued participation of its researchers in existing projects. So, the Swiss precedent shows that the EU position on the UK should not be read as a bluff.

This is also not the first time that Switzerland has fallen out of Horizon. In 2016, their dispute with the EU centred on freedom of movement (and, specifically, the provision of rights to the nationals of the EU’s newest member, Croatia). Somewhat predictably, it was resolved in the EU’s favour and Switzerland was able to rejoin Horizon.

Unfortunately, UK researchers will likely have to get use to this difficult back and forth in UK-EU talks. It creates, of course, needless uncertainty and underlines the damaging knock-on effects of the Northern Ireland standoff.