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Reports spark hope of Horizon Europe deal for UK

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

But government sources deny media reports of draft deal for UK rejoining EU R&D programmes

Media reports that a draft deal has been reached on the UK rejoining the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme have raised hopes, despite denials from UK government sources that anything has been finalised.

The website Politico and the UK’s Daily Express reported that negotiators have reached a draft deal to be presented to UK prime minister Rishi Sunak ahead of a meeting with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen next Tuesday.

Talks have been ongoing since the two sides reached a political agreement in February on trade that opened the door to the UK rejoining EU programmes after having been frozen out for two years.

“The reports that an agreement may soon be reached on the UK rejoining Horizon Europe are a welcome sign of progress. We look forward to examining any agreement that is reached,” said Greg Clark, chair of the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee.

The reports of a draft deal were denied by government sources from two departments, one of whom told Research Professional News that nothing had been agreed by the UK.

A UK government spokesperson at the foreign office also denied the reports. They told Research Professional News: “Talks are ongoing and therefore, we have not yet agreed a deal.”

The Commission offered no comment on the news of the deal, but said “we are in discussions with the UK on its participation in EU programmes”.

Promising prospect

The rumours of a deal has raised hopes among members of the UK research community, who have been pushing hard to rejoin EU R&I programmes.

“If confirmed, this raises the promising prospect of a deal within days, which would be the best of news for UK science,” said Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

“I urge the prime minister and president of the European Commission to secure this agreement,” she added.

Liam Smeeth, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “Rejoining Horizon will be a major step forward for UK science.”

Kieron Flanagan, professor of science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said it would be “great news”, but added that he was not sure he would believe it “‘til I see it signed and sealed”.

He said that “it may take years to rebuild our position in European networks given the damage that’s been done” by the long impasse and “with European partners increasingly believing that it had become a liability to include UK partners, regardless of the official position”.

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at University College London, told Research Professional News that media reports of a deal look promising. But he added: “After so many false dawns, this is a time to cross our fingers rather than a time to celebrate.”

Deep connections

Also responding to the rumours, Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, said: “We strongly welcome the news today that the government is in the final stages of reaching an agreement with the European Commission for the UK to associate to the Horizon Europe programme […] The UK’s longstanding participation in European research and innovation funding has been a hugely significant and valuable feature of our national R&D system.”

And Martin Smith, head of the Wellcome Trust’s Policy Lab, told Research Professional News: “If true, this is hugely positive news. A great deal of political will has been needed to get this far and I hope it now bears fruit.

“A long-term solution for UK association to Horizon Europe would be by far the best outcome for health, science and competitiveness across Europe and would give the research sector in the UK and the EU the security and clarity it desperately needs to continue to thrive.”

It is reported that the draft deal includes membership of Horizon Europe and the EU’s Copernicus Earth-observation programme, but not the Euratom nuclear programme due to concerns over value for money. 

While hopes had been raised of reaching a deal quickly after the UK and EU reached agreement on trade in Northern Ireland, the UK government has sought to reduce the cost of rejoining Horizon Europe over fears that participation rates by British researchers would not recover to former levels.

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe