The announcement that the UK government and the EU have reached an agreement paving the way from January next year for Britain to rejoin Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5bn flagship research and innovation programme, has been widely welcomed by the academic community.
A government press release trumpeted that the UK is to “associate to Horizon Europe and Copernicus programmes through a bespoke new agreement with the EU”.
No 10 was quick to tweet a thread which boasted of getting “better value for money” and negotiating “new financial protections to make sure we get better value for British taxpayers … this wasn’t the case beforehand”. However, the agreement is not quite the financial triumph that Rishi Sunak claims, as we shall see.
Getting better value is a reference to fears that Britain would pay in more than it received in scientific funding, with the EU using the UK as a cash cow to finance its own research. Before Brexit, the government had no qualms about British universities and research bodies regularly being net beneficiaries of Horizon funding but clearly we are now much more committed to fairness and getting the right balance. Ahem.
Spirit of friendly cooperation
Meanwhile, the EU Commission released a slightly more diplomatic statement that drew a veil over the recent hiatus in the UK’s membership of Horizon as a result of the government failing to meet its obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol. The statement talked of the new agreement marking “another step forward for the EU and UK to work together in the spirit of friendly cooperation on issues of shared interest”.
The EU also issued a Q&A that gave more detail of the financial arrangements. Britain is to contribute almost €2.6bn per year on average for its participation in both Horizon Europe and the Copernicus component of the space programme. This figure was not mentioned in the UK’s press release – for obvious reasons.
So far so good.
But then we get to the awkward details. Note this particular Q&A:
Is there a correction mechanism to take account of the UK possibly underperforming or overperforming?
“Yes, there is a correction mechanism built in for Horizon Europe.”
“In case the UK obtains more receipts in grants than its contribution for grants, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement stipulates that there is an automatic correction to the UK’s contribution if it reaches a threshold of 8% over two successive years.
“In case the UK receives significantly fewer grants than its contribution, other correction mechanisms are provided for. The first way to rebalance the situation should be to try to improve the level of UK participation. If the UK overpays by more than 12%, it may bring the matter to the joint Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes for consideration and agreement of appropriate measures to balance the situation.
“Given that the UK has not been fully part of Horizon Europe for the past two years, the Commission and UK have agreed on a temporary and automatic mechanism to address any risk of critical underperformance by the UK for the remainder of the current MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework] should the imbalance exceed 16%.”
Better from within
This looks as if the deal is tilted in favour of the EU as an article in Science Business points out. They confirm the deal is “not symmetrical” and that it is in fact “somewhat lopsided”.
The UK actually gets a refund if it contributes 16% more than it gets out. But it will have to start paying the EU Commission back if it gets 8% more out than it contributes. See the difference? For some other associated countries, like Israel, this correction mechanism is apparently equal in both directions.
And note, while there is some automaticity for the remainder of the MFF which runs alongside Horizon until 2027, thereafter Britain can only resolve any ‘overpayments’ that benefit the EU by appealing nicely to the joint Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes “for consideration and agreement of appropriate measures to balance the situation”.
But, on the other hand, if there are overpayments that benefit the UK, an automatic correction mechanism comes into force.
Science Business say the new association deal is also financially very different to the one the UK had as a member of the EU. Then, its contributions were based on the size of its economy, without any clawback mechanisms.
The asymmetry in the Horizon deal is the same one we have seen play out since negotiations began in 2017 and that will continue to play out while ever Britain remains outside the EU.