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Fine Print of Horizon Europe Deal Ties UK Into the Next Framework Programme

epa10494025 Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) attend a joint news conference on a post-Brexit deal in Windsor, Britain, 27 February 2023. The UK and European Union reached a deal on Northern Ireland's trading arrangements, ending more than a year of often acrimonious wrangling over the post-Brexit settlement for the region, people familiar with the matter said. EPA-EFE/CHRIS J. RATCLIFFE / POOL

The deal under which the UK is to associate to Horizon Europe contains a potential financial incentive for the country to continue into next Framework Programme 10 (FP10) research programme, according to the fine print of the agreement. The agreement announced on 7 September says the UK will be able to claw back money if it pays 16% more into the scheme than it gets out, a term that gave the UK government enough financial security to agree a deal.

But the full text of the amendment shows that if the UK underperforms in the last two years of Horizon Europe, which ends in 2027, any refund “shall be applied to operational contributions of the United Kingdom to a succeeding programme in which the United Kingdom participates.”

“You get a voucher for FP10, rather than a cheque in the post,” said Martin Smith, head of the policy lab at the Wellcome Trust, the UK medical research charity. For Smith, the rollover clause is good news, because it lays the groundwork for the UK to take part in future framework programmes. “It’s setting up an expectation that participation is a long-term thing, which is great,” he said.

Of course, the clawback mechanism may never be invoked if the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe recovers enough, meaning it gets out financially roughly what it puts in. But there is a long road to recovery ahead. At the beginning of this year, UK participation was half what it was under the previous programme, Horizon 2020. Last week the president of Hamburg University predicted it could take the UK up to five years to restore participation levels, although UK university heads tend to be more upbeat.

The UK may want to want to join FP10 anyway, if the opposition Labour Party wins power in the general election next year or early 2025. Labour campaigned hard for association to Horizon, and is in general in favour of closer ties to Brussels. Other association agreements, like that for Israel, do not explicitly contain this rollover clause.

A spokesman for the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology did not directly address questions about the rollover clause when asked by Science|Business. “The government has negotiated a bespoke deal in the UK’s national interest, which means that UK researchers and businesses can participate confidently in the world’s largest programme of research cooperation, worth more than £80 billion,” he said. The European Commission had not responded to queries on the rollover clause by Science|Business’s deadline.

More negotiation over Copernicus

As part of the association deal, the UK is rejoining the Copernicus earth observation programme, but not the nuclear research programme Euratom, which coordinates European involvement in ITER, the multi-billion euro international fusion energy prototype being constructed in the south of France. But the documents – made public by the European Council, which still has to sign them off – confirm that there is still a little more negotiation before the UK has access to security-related parts of Copernicus.

UK access to the Copernicus Security Service – a system covering areas like border and maritime surveillance, which could touch on sensitive migration issues – will depend on, “the extent the cooperation between the parties in the relevant policy areas is agreed,” the documents say, adding, “The modalities of activation and use shall be subject to specific agreements.”

These negotiations on the nature of UK involvement in this part of Copernicus will start as soon as possible after association to the programme is agreed. But if agreement is “substantially delayed” or proves “impossible”, UK and EU representative will discuss “how to adjust the participation of the United Kingdom in Copernicus and its financing taking into account this situation,” it says.

“There’s clearly some other discussion to happen,” said Smith. The UK’s access to Copernicus security services “will depend on the cooperation agreed between the EU and the UK in the relevant areas; this concerns concretely: border monitoring, maritime surveillance and support to external and security actions,” said a Commission spokesperson.

These extra negotiations are to some extent expected – an identical stipulation appears in the original association deal agreed by London and Brussels at the end of 2020. However, it highlights continued sensitivities around the UK taking part in security-related research. In 2021, the Commission tried to exclude the UK, plus Switzerland and Israel, from certain grant calls in quantum technologies and space.

The announcement on association earlier this month between the EU and UK stressed they share a mutual interest in developing “new and emerging technologies”, indicating that the UK wants to avoid being excluded from similar calls in the future. One Horizon Europe call, set to open in November, explicitly focuses on Copernicus’s security services. If the UK hasn’t agreed access by then, it could cause issues for UK applicants.

“The UK can participate in calls related to Copernicus, unless if restricted in sensitive areas,” a Commission spokesperson said. “This might be the case for calls related to the Copernicus security service.” Despite the fanfare over the deal earlier this month, it still needs to be approved by member states through the European Council. This is expected to be a formality, although a spokesperson for the Council did not give a date when asked when member states were likely to approve the deal.