Behind the Scenes: Lament Horizon

Behind the Scenes: Lament Horizon


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

Lament Horizon

Two years on from Brexit and the EU is moving on with life, especially when it comes to funding research and innovation. Left out in the cold, the UK is now seeing its spot at the table filled by some familiar faces that its Leave-backing champions actually wanted to emulate.

The Horizon Europe research programme is an indisputable EU success story, ranking up there with the Erasmus scheme, free roaming, quieter vacuum cleaners and peace between member states for more than half a century.

Billions of euros are pumped into projects that aim to solve some of society’s biggest problems and foster ties between researchers in different countries, who otherwise might never have met.

When the UK decided to leave the EU, its participation as a full member of Horizon was de facto ruled out but a new role as an associated partner was part of the negotiations. But because of political backsliding, that membership is indefinitely on hold.

To make matters more galling for UK-based researchers, Brussels is ploughing on with plans to add more partner countries and expand its already impressive network of collaborators.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Horizon Europe was one of the few areas where the UK wanted to remain aligned with the EU, brokering lucrative associate status as part of its drawn-out and infuriatingly tedious exit deal.

Other attractive aspects of EU membership, such as single market access, Erasmus, the Galileo satnav network and cohesion funding were all left by the wayside but the Brexit cherry-picker saw the merit in the multibillion-euro research pot.

Two years since the transition period ended though, the UK’s horizons are quite the opposite of broadened, as a spat over the Northern Ireland Protocol has derailed the hopes of researchers all over the country.

Brussels is adamant that the issue must be resolved before other parts of the withdrawal agreement are tackled. Research institutes in Britain and EU countries have urged the European Commission to relent but have been ignored.

The UK’s Horizon status was never fully implemented and won’t be anytime soon, if the mood of cross-Channel relations is anything to go by. Westminster-Brussels ties may not have worsened under Rishi Sunak’s watch but there has been little improvement either.

EU officials this week were less than enthusiastic about the chances of a resolution. Ursula von der Leyen said the talks are “constructive” but that is normally Brussels-speak for ‘going nowhere fast’.

There was also a hint of ‘what you could have won’ too this week, when the European Research Council awarded more than €600 million in grants, €95 million of which are theoretically earmarked for British researchers.

More than 40 projects were deemed eligible but that money will not be disbursed until the UK sorts itself out, otherwise researchers will have to decide whether to forgo the cash or relocate to an institute that is eligible. For many, the latter option is simply unviable.

This is not anti-UK sentiment or Brussels officials “punishing Brexit-voting Brits” as the Leave campaign’s alumni have claimed, rather a consistent political line that the EU is also walking with another one of its closest neighbours, Switzerland.

The Swiss government torpedoed ties with the EU 18 months ago when Bern officials walked away from talks meant to broker a new treaty between the two sides. That led to a suspension of its Horizon involvement.

Swiss researchers are feeling the pinch and government programmes meant to replace lost Horizon funding are unsurprisingly found wanting. Public sentiment is slowly shifting towards resuming talks with the EU and compromising on the most controversial issues.

In January, Switzerland was even ejected from the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) — a body that plans Europe’s research infrastructure needs — because members have to be EU countries or aligned with Horizon.

Remember that Switzerland hosts CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, perhaps the most famous example of research infrastructure to be found anywhere in the world. Say what you like about the EU being unreasonable but its commitment to consistency cannot be doubted.

Too late?

It is not like the EU is short of friends. The Commission is pressing ahead with plans to add new partners that are not candidates for full bloc membership to the Horizon programme and create a global network of interlinked research institutes, all funded through Brussels.

That strategy started bearing fruit late in 2022 when New Zealand became the first non-EU industrialised nation to be granted associate status by the Commission.

Final signoff is still pending and could yet be jeopardised by MEPs who are unhappy with how the EU executive has allegedly bypassed the Parliament in bestowing associate status to New Zealand.

Lawmakers worry that it sets a precedent for third-party countries to gain access to future programmes, such as Horizon’s eventual post-2027 successor or the Erasmus scheme. The Commission might need to make assurances before the deal can be finalised.

Negotiations are also ongoing with Canada and EU research chief Mariya Gabriel told MEPs last week that she expects that agreement to be wrapped up within the coming weeks, opening the door to even more research projects and topics.

Somewhat ironically, two of the countries that Brexit-backing politicians have sought to emulate over the years when it comes to migration and finance policies — Australia and Singapore — are also on the Commission’s radar.

Exploratory talks are due and officials are confident there is a lot of common ground to exploit. With new countries come new opportunities and new sources of revenue, as members have to pay fees to gain access.

UK voters may well be increasingly dissatisfied with the outcomes of Brexit, as per new polling, but as Brussels continues to demonstrate, no one on this side of the Channel is waiting around for Britain to experience a eureka moment about leaving.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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