Home » UK will not have to pay for last two years if it rejoins Horizon scheme, EU says

UK will not have to pay for last two years if it rejoins Horizon scheme, EU says

The UK will not have to pay for the two years it has been out of the EU’s €95.5bn (£84bn) Horizon scientific research programme, EU officials have said, in a significant move that opens the door to British scientists.

The European Commission statement that the UK was not required to pay for 2021 and 2022 when British membership of Horizon was frozen because of a dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol should in theory hasten a deal on British participation.

Yet the UK government continues to see money as a stumbling block for the talks, raising uncertainty about Britain’s future in the Horizon programme, which runs from 2021 to 2027 and aims to promote scientific breakthroughs that will tackle the climate crisis and treat cancer, as well as restore the degradation of nature on land and at sea.

The European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, told the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, on 24 March that the UK “would not be required to contribute for the period it wasn’t associated to the [seven-year] programme, ie 2021-2022”, a commission spokesperson said. Šefčovič, the lead commission official on EU-UK relations, was said to have clearly passed on that message during the first meeting of the EU-UK “joint committee” since the Windsor framework deal resolved the long-running Northern Ireland dispute between London and Brussels.

After that meeting took place, senior UK officials are understood to have voiced uncertainty about whether the UK would be required to pay for 2021 and 2022, while suggesting the wrong price for associate membership would be a dealbreaker.

The UK government declined to comment on apparent discrepancies in the understanding of the meeting. “We are moving forward with discussions on the UK’s involvement in EU research programmes, but we will not be providing a running commentary on these discussions,” the spokesperson said.

An EU official insisted Šefčovič had been clear in his message: “We are not being unreasonable. We are not asking them to pay for the years they were not associated.

“We are ready to work on it very quickly,” the official said. “But there is still that doubt about the willingness of the UK to take part.”

Nearly two weeks after the Šefčovič-Cleverly meeting, the government unveiled its own science and innovation scheme called Pioneer, “should association to the Horizon Europe scheme not prove possible”.

British officials said their preference is to take part in Horizon, but any agreement must reflect the lasting impact of two years of exclusion on British researchers and companies.

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The UK equivalent to Horizon would be worth £14.6bn to British science until 2028, the sum the government would have contributed to the EU scheme had a membership deal been in place from the start. But leading British scientists fear that Pioneer would be a poor substitute for membership of an international scheme, and British science and technology would be damaged by not joining Horizon.

Christian Ehler, a German Christian Democrat MEP, who follows EU research policy at the European parliament, told the Guardian it would be devastating for both sides to have Britain outside the EU programme.

“They are now out and it is high time to prepare to have them coming back, because we are globally challenged by China, by the United States. And I think it is in everyone’s geopolitical interest that we join forces.”

“I think the commission made it relatively clear that the UK won’t have to pay for 2021, for 2022,” he said while adding the European parliament would like to see the UK taking part in some programmes that began last year.