In a significant development, negotiators from the UK and the European Union have reached a draft deal regarding Britain’s re-entry into the Horizon Europe research program. After months of intense negotiations, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to receive the draft agreement this weekend. The final confirmation of the agreement is anticipated to take place during a crucial meeting between Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen next Tuesday.
Under the draft agreement, Britain will rejoin Horizon Europe, which has a budget of €95.5 billion for the period from 2021 to 2027. Additionally, the UK will also participate in the Copernicus Earth observation program. However, the country will not be rejoining Euratom’s nuclear energy R&D scheme, as it is considered “poor value for money” by both the British government and the UK nuclear sector.
The departure of the UK from these programs occurred when the country officially exited the European Union in January 2020. Negotiations to re-associate as a third country faced challenges, particularly due to the contentious issues surrounding post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.
The talks gained momentum in March after the Windsor Framework deal was struck between London and Brussels. The expectation of a swift resolution increased after the European Commission confirmed that the UK would not be required to pay backdated participation fees for the missed two years of the Horizon program.
During the negotiations, the UK government emphasised the need for a larger discount, citing the weakened position of British-based researchers and businesses compared to their European counterparts. The two-year hiatus prevented them from leading multi-country research consortia and led to changes in their research plans due to the prevailing uncertainty.
To bridge the gap, British civil servants provided models estimating the potential grant funding that UK-based scientists could regain in the final five years of the scheme. They also requested an additional rebate. Simultaneously, the UK government explored a domestic alternative known as “Plan B” or Pioneer.
The negotiations on Britain’s contributions concluded on Tuesday evening, with the Treasury expressing support for the proposal. However, exact details of the financial arrangement were not disclosed.
Sunak is expected to carefully review the agreement this weekend and make a decision on whether to proceed. The crucial bilateral meeting between Sunak and von der Leyen during the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Tuesday, is seen as a pivotal moment in the discussions.
While it is suggested that the UK should rejoin Horizon Europe and Copernicus in January 2024, the final decision on the date is likely to be determined during the meeting. Once the two leaders endorse the terms of the agreement, a legal text will be drafted.
A spokesperson for the British government stated that talks are still ongoing and no deal has been officially agreed upon at this stage.