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As a Member State of the EU, the UK participated in a range of EU programmes. These included its framework programmes for funding research, most recently Horizon 2020.  Once it left the EU the UK was no longer automatically entitled to participate in EU programmes. However, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which governs UK-EU relations post-Brexit, provided for continuing participation in some programmes. 

What EU programmes should the UK be participating in?

The TCA set out general rules and conditions for UK participation in EU programmes, including a formula for calculating UK financial contributions. The programmes that the UK would be participating in would be set out in a separate protocol. A draft protocol, published alongside the TCA but not yet finalised by the UK and EU, indicated the UK would be involved in the following programmes:

Participation in EU programmes has, however, yet to be signed off by the EU. A joint UK-EU declaration published alongside the TCA in December 2020 explained that the draft protocol could not be adopted then, as the EU needed to first adopt its long-term budget for 2021-2027 and the legislation for the various programmes that the UK would be participating in. The declaration stated that the UK and EU had agreed the protocols in principle and that these would be submitted to the joint UK-EU Specialised Committee on Participation in EU Programmes for adoption.

The EU delays participation

By early May 2021, the EU’s budget and its legislation for the programmes had been adopted. However, the EU did not proceed with sign-off of UK participation. In September 2021, the European Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Mariya Gabriel, indicated that there was a link between adoption of the protocols on UK participation in EU programmes and resolution of the differences between the UK and EU over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Specialised Committee met for the first time in December 2021, where the EU confirmed its view that the completion of procedures for formalising UK participation in EU programmes were not “in the current political setting […] opportune” because of “serious difficulties” in implementing the WA.

The differences between the UK and the EU over implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol have subsequently remained unresolved, and the EU has continued to reject requests by the UK to complete the formalities to enable UK participation in programmes.

The UK launches a dispute under the TCA

In August 2022, the UK Government requested formal consultations with the EU on the matter, as the first stage in the dispute settlement mechanism in the TCA. The Government said that the EU was in breach of the TCA, given that the agreement states the UK shall participate in EU programmes.

The dispute settlement mechanism provides for a 30-day consultation period between the UK and EU, after which the complaining party can request the establishment of an independent arbitration tribunal. The tribunal can issue a binding ruling on the matter.

In a meeting of the Specialised Committee in September, the EU’s position remained unchanged. The Government said it was “now urgently considering next steps”.

Impact on UK involvement in Horizon Europe

UK researchers can currently apply for Horizon Europe funding, though successful applicants are unable to sign grant agreements with the EU, to access the funding, until UK participation in the Horizon Europe programme is finalised. However, under a UK Government-backed “funding guarantee” successful UK applicants can access the full value of the funding awarded under the Horizon Europe programme, at their UK host institution, for the lifetime of the grant.

In its 2022-23 to 2024-25 R&D budget allocation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) stated that it had “allocated £6.8 billion over the [spending review period] towards Horizon Europe and other EU programmes”. BEIS added that, if the UK is unable to associate to Horizon Europe, “the funding allocated to Horizon association will go to UK government R&D programmes, including those to support new international partnerships”.

The Government’s “Plan B”

In July 2022, the Government published information on a range of “transitional measures” to support those affected by the delay in associating to Horizon Europe, as well further details about “the UK’s long-term Horizon Europe alternative”. The transitional measures included the “funding guarantee”, continued Third Country Participation in Horizon Europe and making additional funds available to existing UK research funding schemes run by the National Academies (such as the Royal Society) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The Government has also sketched out a “preliminary vision” for a long term, alternative programme to Horizon Europe, should it be required. This features support for global collaboration, steps that facilitate international mobility for research purposes and additional funding for innovation.

As well as looking at alternatives to Horizon Europe, the Government added that it was similarly “developing a comprehensive plan of alternatives to Euratom R&T, Fusion for Energy, and Copernicus programmes, including interim measures”.

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