Horizon Europe: Can Belgian universities cancel research contracts with Israel?

Horizon Europe: Can Belgian universities cancel research contracts with Israel?
Student occupation at the University of Ghent, credit: The Brussels Times

The protests at American campuses against the Israel – Hamas war have spread to Belgian universities with pro-Palestinian student groups calling on university boards to cancel research cooperation with Israeli partners in protest against Israel.

They are referring to EU’s Horizon Europe, a R&D programme for 2021 - 2027 with a budget of €95.5 billion. In December 2021, Israel and the EU renewed their cooperation in research and innovation. Israel has been associated to the EU Framework Programmes for research and innovation since 1996 with high participation rates and multiple success stories, according to the European Commission.

As previously reported, at the University of Ghent, two student groups, Ghent Students for Palestine and End Fossil Ghent, want the university to cut all collaboration with Israeli institutions, which they accused of being “complicit in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians", and to present a more transparent climate action policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the article, the protest groups had not yet received any official reply from the university and continued their “occupation” of the campus. The university did not reply at the time of publishing for a request for comment from The Brussels Times.

A similar development took place at ULB in Brussels where a student organisation accused Israel of genocide in Gaza and called on the university to break off all forms of collaboration with “Zionist” academic institutions and companies that “participate in the systematic oppression of the Palestinian people”.

The students at ULB also demanded that a visit to the campus by a former Israeli ambassador to France, known for his outspoken criticism of the Israeli government, should be cancelled. The student groups at UGent and ULB have not condemned Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October and seem not to support a two-state solution to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

In a radio interview earlier in the week, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo reportedly voiced his support for UGent students occupying campus. "If I were a student today, there is a good chance that I would make my protest voice heard too," he said. His cabinet did not reply to a request for comment.

Cooperation since 1996

The EU – Israel R&D cooperation started in 1996 when Israel became associated with the fourth EU Framework Programme for Research. Entities from associated countries benefit from the same terms and conditions as those from the EU member states. Associated countries have also to pay financial contributions to the programme.

The issue of funding to entities located across the 1967 borders (the Green Line) delayed the signature of the agreement for Horizon Europe but the same compromise solution was found as for the previous programme Horizon 2020. Israel accepted EU’s position that such entities are not eligible for EU funding while sticking to its own position about the borders.

A spokesperson of the European Commission confirmed on Wednesday the rules in place, referring to the 2013 guidelines on eligibility. Besides general rules on compliance with ethical principles, entities located in territories occupied by Israel since the six-days war in 1967 are not eligible for EU funding. The research activities must also be carried out inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

“The Commission ensures the respect of the eligibility requirements in a very strict manner,” he told The Brussels Times. “The Commission can check the projects at any given time and non-compliance can trigger contractual penalties.”

Legal test of cancellation

Can a university in an EU country cancel or suspend its research agreement or contract with an Israeli partner in protest against the Israel’s government policy? It is a more a question for the university than for the Commission, the spokesperson replied. It depends on the conditions and consequences the partners have agreed upon among themselves.

“This isn’t forbidden per se,” he added, “but the terminating entity might face consequences under the grant agreement with the Horizon granting authority.” Horizon projects are carried out by consortia of entities from several countries with one or two partners acting as coordinators of the projects. The project might continue without the terminating partner which probably would lose its grant.

Information about all Horizon projects can be found in a special data base, Cordis. It appears from a search that Ghent university is involved in only 13 Horizon-funded projects, but none of them with an Israeli partner. ULB is involved in 74 projects, in 4 with Israeli partners. Altogether, there are 146 projects which involve Belgian and Israeli universities or companies.

The legal consequences of cancelling research cooperation will be tested soon. ULB’s sister university in Brussels, VUB, announced this week that it plans to review all its 7 projects with Israeli partners and has already identified a research project on artificial intelligence where it wants to end the cooperation. The decision follows a negative evaluation by the university's ethics commission.

Following a recent meeting of the EU-Israel Joint Research and Innovation Committee under Horizon Europe, the Commission issued a statement last week.

“The meeting offered a good occasion for the EU to recall the importance of pursuing the EU-Israel R&I bilateral cooperation based on fundamental values, such as academic freedom, gender equality, diversity, research ethics, open science and evidence-based policy-making.”

The EU underscored the importance of Science Diplomacy in cross-border regional cooperation to address common challenges as a means to bring peace and stability to the region. Presentations from both sides highlighted “Israeli entities and researchers' excellent performance in the first three years of Horizon Europe's implementation and identified areas for better alignment of priorities”.

For more information about Horizon, see audit reports by the European Court of Auditors (ECA). In a report in 2022, the auditors concluded that special measures in the programme cannot on their own create the changes needed in the member states to unlock excellence and give them better access to EU funding.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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