LONDON — U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has triggered formal dispute proceedings against the EU on the eve of a highly-politicized trip to Northern Ireland for the latest Conservative leadership hustings.
Truss, the hot favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister next month, accused the European Commission of breaching the EU-U.K. Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) by blocking Britain’s access to EU science schemes.
Pledging to do “everything necessary” to protect British science, Truss announced Tuesday evening the long-awaited launch of formal consultations with Brussels over the issue — the first stage of a dispute resolution mechanism set out in the EU-U.K. trade deal.
“The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalise access to these important programmes,” the U.K. foreign secretary said in a statement. “We cannot allow this to continue.”
Truss made the announcement — which had been expected for weeks — hours before she arrives in Northern Ireland to face her rival, former U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in the next Tory leadership hustings, which take place in Belfast Wednesday afternoon.
Northern Ireland has found itself the unwanted focus of much of the U.K.-EU sparring since the Brexit vote in 2016, with the U.K. government now threatening to unilaterally override parts of the Brexit divorce deal designed to prevent a hard border between the region and the Republic of Ireland, known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
Under the terms of the TCA, Britain was due to join EU science programs including the Horizon Europe R&D framework, the Copernicus satellite scheme and the Euratom Research and Training Programme as soon as possible. But 20 months after the agreement was reached, the U.K.’s association has still not been formalized.
Talks between the two sides are advanced, but the Commission has put on ice the final sign-off of the association agreement — accusing Britain of not complying with the Northern Ireland protocol.
The EU’s decision to link the two issues has caused deep irritation in London, where ministers counter that there is no legal basis for such a move.
In the meantime, British scientists awarded grants under Horizon Europe have had to either abandon them altogether or find new research institutions within the EU or another associated country.
The U.K.’s Ambassador to the EU Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby delivered a letter to the Commission on Tuesday, marking the formal launch of consultations.
“It has been a long-running source of frustration for the U.K. and we have exhausted every other route to try to resolve it,” a British official said.
Another Whitehall official added: “There’s no reason why we should not be part of these Horizon programs — they are using the Northern Ireland protocol in an inappropriate way. They’ve not stopped suing us for things they aren’t happy about, so it’s time for us to start moving at the same pace.”
But EU27 nations received the news with a shrug and a pitch of scorn. A diplomat from a northern EU country said it was “bonkers, to say the least,” to accuse the EU of breaching an international agreement, given the U.K. was failing to comply with the Northern Ireland protocol.
The diplomat said launching consultations “is not going to deliver a solution, that’s for sure,” and warned this is “probably a necessary prelude to the U.K. moving towards their own program this autumn.”
The U.K. Treasury, which had set aside £6.8 billion to pay for participation in Horizon Europe or an alternative scheme, is already accelerating work on a homegrown plan to support British science.
An envoy from a large EU country lamented the downward spiral in EU-U.K. relations, with both sides triggering different dispute resolution mechanisms in the Brexit deals after failing to bridge their differences through bilateral talks. “This is not good for neither of us,” the envoy warned.
With the U.K. having launched consultations, the EU now has 10 days to reply. The consultations must be held within 30 days of the request. If they fail to resolve the issue, the U.K. could then submit a written request for formal arbitration, in which an independent panel would be tasked to find a resolution within 100 days.
Britain’s move received the backing of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), a Belgium-based network of 23 leading universities — including four in the U.K.
“The obsessive stubbornness of [Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen has really caused this action,” said LERU’s Secretary-General Kurt Deketelaere. “So, well done U.K. government, whoever that may be presently, if they go ahead with this. This politicization of research policy really has to end, and fast.”
The Commission said it “takes note of the U.K.’s request for consultation, and will follow up on this in line with the applicable rules” as set out in the trade deal.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.