BRUSSELS and LONDON — The European Union has confessed it is holding back funding for British scientists as punishment for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to rip up parts of the Brexit deal.
For as long as the spat over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland drags on, Brussels won’t let the U.K. be part of its flagship Horizon research and innovation program, according to an official letter sent to a British politician.
The confirmation of a long-suspected tactic, backed up in private by a European diplomat, marks an escalation of the tense standoff over the Northern Ireland protocol. The EU has already warned it will retaliate if the U.K. carries out its threat to unilaterally ignore the divorce deal’s trade rules.
But even before London acts, research cooperation funding has become a casualty of the row — attracting criticism from London and a key European university lobby group.
The two sides agreed as part of their post-Brexit trade deal that the U.K. could become an associate member of Horizon Europe, the EU’s framework program for research and innovation. But less than two years into the seven-year span of the scheme, the U.K. has been unable to formalize its participation. British researchers can apply but not receive funds.
That situation has provoked outrage in Westminster. The U.K.’s Cabinet Office Minister Michael Ellis accused the Commission of unfairly linking access to Horizon Europe to the long-running argument over trade rules for Northern Ireland earlier in May. London has even suggested the EU may be breaching the trade deal by blocking Britain’s association.
In a letter addressed to crossbench peer Charles Kinnoull, obtained by POLITICO, EU Research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel made an explicit link between the two issues.
While acknowledging that the U.K. joining Horizon Europe “is a ‘win-win’ for both sides,” she warned that “the current political setting of this relationship should be recalled.”
“There are at present serious difficulties in the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and parts of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom,” she wrote in the letter, dated April 29.
The two sides are clashing over British demands to change the Northern Ireland protocol. Agreed by both the U.K. and EU as part of the Brexit divorce deal in 2019, the protocol was drawn up to protect the EU’s single market after Britain exited in January 2021, while preventing a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that could jeopardize peace. The protocol has proven deeply unpopular with Northern Ireland’s unionists.
The EU’s Ambassador to the U.K. João Vale de Almeida told reporters Thursday it was “regrettable” that researchers in Europe were “collateral damage” in the EU-U.K. row, but expressed hope a solution can be found “very soon.”
An EU diplomat confirmed that the bloc won’t budge on Horizon until the protocol row has been at least partially resolved.
“Unfortunately the U.K.’s declared intention to override provisions of the protocol means the type of relationship that we want, including U.K. participation in Horizon, has not yet been agreed and is unlikely to progress given the current poor state of relations,” the diplomat said.
The Commission letter is likely to worsen already bad relations between London and Brussels. It will reinforce the U.K. argument that there is no legal basis for British participants to be frozen out of the program. Britain has already raised the Horizon issue at the EU-U.K. Partnership Council, which oversees the operation of the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The Commission confirmed the authenticity of the letter but declined to comment on its contents.
A U.K. government official said Britain’s participation in Horizon Europe and the Northern Ireland protocol “are entirely separate issues and contained in different agreements.”
“We are deeply disappointed that the EU is delaying formalizing our participation in Horizon Europe. This is to the detriment of scientists and researchers and there is no practical reason for this delay,” the official said.
Kinnoull, chair of the House of Lords European affairs committee, had lobbied Gabriel to commit to unfreeze Britain’s association. The committee is carrying out an inquiry into the delays.
“I think it’s a great pity that politics is stopping good science and causing damage to European science, something precious,” Kinnoull told POLITICO.
Other partner countries that received Horizon association status include Georgia, Ukraine, Iceland, Israel and Turkey.
The effective blocking of British researchers from EU funds has already triggered a backlash from scientists. By freezing out British participants for political reasons, despite repeated calls from the research community, the Commission is “losing the moral high-ground” and “part of the coolness and prestige” it built up during the Brexit negotiations, said Thomas Jørgensen, director of policy at the university lobby group the European University Association.
The Commission declined to comment.
This “completely arbitrary” decision will penalize not only researchers and R&D companies based in Britain, Jørgensen added, but also those within the EU who want to cooperate with their British counterparts and fear their projects would be hampered by the loss of U.K. expertise.
“The Commission had credibility because [the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel] Barnier took this very legalistic, technical perspective, but this is just nonsense,” he said.
Another EU diplomat rejected the criticism. “As long as GB threatens to suspend important parts of the withdrawal agreement, it is hard to imagine doing business as usual in other areas. Rewarding Britain for its threats is simply inconceivable,” the diplomat said. “Brexit means Brexit, it’s a self-inflicted wound.”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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