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Policy update: Brexit spotlight

Our Policy and Public Affairs Manager, Matthew Gibbard, reviews the current political situation around Brexit and reminds us of key moments and decisions in the UK’s negotiations with the European Union, including access to EU research funding via Horizon Europe.


Amidst the choppy seas of the pandemic, Brexit is once again starting to rear its head from beneath the surface to remind us that it never really went away at all. You can be forgiven for not being completely up to speed on the important dates and decisions in the UK’s negotiations with the European Union, with COVID-19 drawing almost all public and political focus for the best part of 2020. The first important deadline was 1 July 2020, by which time the UK and the EU had to agree if they wished to extend the transition period beyond 31 December 2020; the decision was made not to extend into 2021. This meant that a second deadline began to be talked about: 15 October 2020. This marked the date of a summit of the European Council (an EU institution comprising the heads of state or government of each EU member country) at which it was thought that a decision would be taken regarding the progress of talks with the UK.

Quelle surprise, then, that no decision was taken at these crunch talks and negotiations are still occurring at the time of writing. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has suggested that the next EU summit on 15 November will be the important date. The sticking points are widely reported to be on items such as access to UK waters for fishing, the post-Brexit state aid plans for industry in the UK and the knock-on effect to ‘alevel playing field’ associated with that. Senior figures in UK science however, are said to be expressing doubt that Horizon Europe will be able to provide value for money to UK researchers, based on the access arrangements proposed by the European Union. While the UK is currently overall a net contributor to EU coffers, it has been a net recipient of Horizon 2020 funds, taking billions of euros more out than it has paid in. It is thought that EU negotiators are asking that the UK ‘pay to play’ contribution to Horizon Europe be based on the size of its GDP in comparison with the EU’s (at the moment the UK’s GDP is equal to 18% of that of the EU), which will make any contribution in the order of billions rather than millions. On top of this would be administrative and participatory fees. Without a downward corrective mechanism, whereby UK researchers can recoup any money invested by the UK Government that they do not receive back in grants, the question of value for money has quickly arisen.

‘Without a downward corrective mechanism, whereby UK researchers can recoup any money invested by the UK Government that they do not receive back in grants, the question of value for money has quickly arisen.

UK negotiators have argued for an arrangement similar to that proposed by Europe in 2018 in which there would be a ‘pay as you go’ arrangement with a safety net mechanism in place to ensure that no non-EU country is left out of pocket. The EU have been keen to move away from this idea however, no doubt in part due to internal arguments about the budget of Horizon Europe and how this would be funded. The European Commission originally planned an ambitious figure of more than €100 billion for Horizon, but after infighting between heads of member states, this was pared back to about €80 billion by the time the whole EU Budget reached the European Parliament for approval, with critics saying that national leaders had treated the Horizon budget as ‘cash cow’ during talks in July 2020. Even the planned €13.5 billion earmarked for COVID-19 research was scaled back to €5 billion by national leaders. It could be that now the EU is hoping third countries will make up the shortfall.

At the time of going to print, negotiations between the UK and the EU were ongoing in relation to Horizon Europe. Senior figures in UK universities continued to express concern that the current proposed funding model did not offer value for money without a corrective mechanism and that the UK was unlikely to win back all its contributions as grants. Others in Europe say this isn’t necessarily true because the figures the UK is basing its baseline estimate on have been affected adversely by Brexit since 2016 and that Horizon Europe is a new programme that will give far more weight to innovation, impact and open science. The outcome of course remains to be seen, but in chorus with our partners, we will continue to press the case for a settlement that is fair and equitable to both sides, so that the ‘winner’ in the negotiations is science on both sides of the Channel.

Matthew Gibbard
BSI Policy & Public Affairs Manager