Sunak warned failure to rejoin EU scheme could ‘cost us dear’

Britain and the EU have been urged to strike another agreement as fast as possible so the UK can rejoin the bloc’s flagship innovation scheme as the Prime Minister mulls over an alternative plan. Rishi Sunak’s “decisive breakthrough” on Brexit negotiations with the EU has opened the door for cooperation on research again.

The bloc had temporarily banned Britain from accessing its £84billion innovation scheme until the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute was settled. This week, both sides agreed on a new Windsor framework after months of painstaking negotiations.

While European Commission President Usrula von der Leyen hailed the deal as “good news for all those who are working in research and sciences”, they may have a little more waiting to do.

This is because they could face another delay to rejoining Horizon Europe as the EU may want Britain to pay for parts of the scheme it never accessed during the two-year delay. Britain, before the EU blocked it from Horizon Europe despite its inclusion in the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement, was supposed to contribute £15billion over a seven-year period.

However, senior colleagues have reportedly said Mr Sunak is “sceptical” about the value of the research programme, the Financial Times reports. He is now reportedly considering a £6billion alternative plan drawn up by Science Minister George Freeman as he weighs up his options.

Science Minisiter Chi Onwurah told that further delay and a failure to rejoin will “cost us dear”.

She said: “Sunak and Freeman (the Science Minister) seem to be pedalling back on association and whether they are going to achieve it and that is a concern. It would be a massive failure on their part and cost us dear.”

It comes after the delay stopped British researchers from accessing prestigious EU grants to work on projects ranging from AI and Quantium mechanics to climate change research. It also scuppered opportunities to partner up with European scientists. This was particularly damaging as collaboration is deemed crucial for research.

Mr Onwurah said: “The massive uncertainty has cost us business investment and damaged our reputation. Particularly the scientists who moved abroad to get their promised funding.

“I speak to investors and science businesses all the time and this is on their list of reasons why the UK isn’t as attractive as it was because they didn’t know whether they were going to be part of the biggest science programme or not.

“This has put a barrier on scientific collaboration and we can’t fully measure what the costs of that are.”

Science Minister George Freeman’s “Plan B” was drawn up to account for a scenario in which the Northern Ireland Protocol deal was never struck. Part of his plan was already in effect as it had guaranteed UK funding for successful British Horizon grant applicants.

But the Commission may want the UK to pay a share of Horizon administration costs, even for the years Britain was not associated, due to researchers still applying for European Research Council grants (ERC).

Mr Freeman has warned that it could take up to a year to rejoin the programme if Mr Sunak does decide he wants Britain to rejoin.

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Peter Mason, who leads global research and innovation policy at Universities UK, previously told Science Business: “If an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol is reached, the UK’s financial contribution to the Horizon budget will need to be renegotiated before UK association can be confirmed, to reflect the fact that the UK Government has been funding UK participation in the programme over the last two years.”

British researchers’ interest in Horizon also plummeted because it is banned from joining, meaning the UK could tell the bloc that it should pay less to reflect the fact it is getting less money back.

But despite concerns that the UK may have to pay for parts of the scheme that it did not access due to a delay, other researchers are optimistic that the Government can sort this out.

Dr Daniel Rathbone, Assistant Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering, told “Negotiators should now press to associate the UK to Horizon Europe as soon as possible.

“There are clearly some outstanding issues to be solved including around the financial contribution but I think they are eminently solvable in a pretty short time frame. The Government has been able to negotiate the Northern Ireland issue in about four months and I don’t think you could say that this issue is anywhere near as complicated as the one with Northern Ireland.

“If we can get this done quickly, we can build back on what we have lost over the last couple of years and it does not need to be irretrievable.

“We are not going to immediately get back to the kind of levels that we have seen in the past, it will take some time to build back up to that. But there is no reason that we couldn’t if we sort it out very quickly.

“I don’t think it needs to take that long. As long as there is strong political will on both sides, I think those issues can be sorted out.”

A Government spokesperson said: “The Windsor Framework delivers for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. It ensures free-flowing trade in goods within the UK, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our Union, and safeguards sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

“We will continue to discuss how we can work constructively with the EU in a range of areas, including future collaboration on research and innovation.”

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