Universities urge EU to agree UK Horizon Europe association

EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen warned to accelerate talks because “Europe’s strategic autonomy requires close collaboration with the EU’s closest partner in research and innovation”

The heads of 25 organisations representing more than 1,000 universities have written to the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to warn that European-UK research partnerships are approaching a “crunch point” with no confirmation yet of UK association with Horizon Europe.

The letter published on 4 November implores the Commission to agree UK association with the European Union’s research and development programme – Horizon Europe – “without further delay”, or risk “a major weakening of our collective research strength and competitiveness”.

The €95.5 billion (£80.5bn) programme funds research and facilitates vital intercontinental partnerships. The two sides agreed on UK association in the UK-EU trade deal signed in the winter of 2020. UK researchers have already applied to Horizon Europe funding calls, with the understanding that grants would not progress until the matter of association was settled.

But ratification has been subject to a 10-month delay.

With the first Horizon Europe grant agreements approaching and new calls soon to be launched, UK association must be finalised without further delay
– Open letter to European Commission from leading European universities

UK participation in the seven-year programme is reportedly collateral damage in a dispute between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol and fishing rights in UK waters. Mariya Gabriel, the EU commissioner responsible for research, told Science Business this month: “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.”

Last week, David Frost, chief negotiator of Task Force Europe, told the House of Commons European scrutiny committee: “There is an obligation in article 710 of the trade and cooperation agreement to finalise our participation [in Horizon Europe]. It uses the word ‘shall’. It is an obligation. It would obviously be a breach of the treaty if the EU doesn’t deliver on this obligation.”

“Horizon Europe’s success will hinge on its commitment to excellence and global outlook,” the letter to the European Commission says. “We have a long history of close and trusted collaboration and shared success with the UK. The strength of those partnerships has provided enormous benefits to excellent research, resulting in countless collaborations to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, boosting competitiveness and growth.”

Continuing these partnerships is vital for the EU “to succeed in the twin green and digital transitions”, the communique said, adding: “Europe’s strategic autonomy requires close collaboration with the EU’s closest partner in research and innovation.”

“[T]he absence of a clear timeline for finalising UK association is now causing increasing concern. This lingering uncertainty risks endangering current and future plans for collaboration,” the signatories warned. “We are rapidly approaching a crunch point. With the first Horizon Europe grant agreements approaching and new calls soon to be launched, UK association must be finalised without further delay.”

The UK was responsible for just under 15% of all funds awarded in Horizon 2020, the antecedent EU R&D programme of which it was a part while a member of the EU. The UK was the second biggest beneficiary of Horizon 2020 after Germany, winning £7.8bn over seven years.

Signatories of the letter sent to President von der Leyen include Prof Michael Murphy, president of the European Universities Association (EUA); Prof Rik Van de Walle, president of CESAER; Prof Vincent Blondel, chair of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild); Prof Karen Maex, Chair of the League of European Research Universities (LERU); and Dr Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe.

Signatories represent over 1,000 universities and universities of applied sciences, 56 academies of science, 38 research performing and funding organisations, 33 rectors’ conferences, as well as 120 regional organisations.

Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council, Signe Ratso, chief negotiator for Horizon Europe Association, and Ms Gabriel were also copied into the letter.

The recent budget has confirmed UK funds worth billions for UK association with Horizon over the next three years.

Earlier this month, the EUA issued a statement: “Many, deep and long-lasting partnerships are at stake. These are of high value to Europe as a whole – and to the world at large. The lengthy process of associating the UK to Horizon Europe and other EU programmes is creating unnecessary insecurity within the European knowledge community, and this insecurity threatens plans for scientific cooperation – with negative consequences for both the EU and the UK.”

Read more: Transnational education “growing and diversifying” in UK HE

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