Brexit fishing row: France ready to block UK membership of €100bn EU research programme

·3 min read
French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters gathered their boats in protest off the English Channel island of Jersey in May. - Oliver Pinel
French fishermen angry over loss of access to waters gathered their boats in protest off the English Channel island of Jersey in May. - Oliver Pinel

France will block the UK’s associate membership of the EU’s €100 billion research programme unless Britain grants it more post-Brexit fishing licences.

Paris has made clear that it will veto the already delayed associate membership of the flagship Horizon Europe programme, which would enable British universities, companies and researchers to continue bidding for pan-European funding after Brexit.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has set a two-week deadline for the UK and Jersey to back down in the row over licences. Paris is furious that the UK approved just 15 permits out of 47 applications for small French fishing boats to operate in its coastal waters.

The French government is expected to announce a series of measures it could take against the UK by the end of the week. These could include go-slow customs checks at Calais and UK ships being turned away from French ports.

Clement Beaune, France’s Europe Minister, said “The British want access to European programmes, scientific exchanges, research funding...they want to participate, we are saying first respect the agreement. We have levers. The British need us more than we need them.”

‘Transitional arrangements’ until membership formalised

The European Commission is waiting for “transversal” political issues to be resolved before it moves forward with association, Mariya Gabriel, the commissioner responsible for research, told the Science Business website.

Before the UK’s entry to the project can be formalised, member states must sign off on a protocol, drawn up by Brussels and Government officials, which sets out the terms of the partnership. It is unlikely that the commission will present the legal text until it is certain it will secure unanimous backing from national governments.

A commission spokesman said Brussels would “finalise the association of the UK to Horizon Europe and other EU programmes in due course”.

“We therefore need to complete our internal procedures. Prior to adopting the protocol at the joint specialised committee, the commission will need to seek an authorisation decision from the council,” the spokesman said.

He said “transitional arrangements” would allow UK organisations to apply for Horizon programmes until membership was formalised. It would have to be formalised by the time any grant was agreed.

“They will be treated ‘as if’ they were entities of associated countries right until the signature of the grant agreement, by which time respective association agreements would need to be in force,” he said.

A UK Government source said, "Blocking the UK from joining Horizon is in no one’s interest – we can’t participate and they lose out on our financial contribution. We’re due to give £15bn to Horizon and the UK is Europe’s leading R&D and science centre with world class scientists and innovators.

“UK participation would be a win-win for both of us and a brilliant opportunity to work together on the big challenges facing us both, from climate change to Covid-19 but repeated delay calls into question the worth of us contributing at all.”

The UK secured associate membership of the Horizon programme during the Brexit negotiations. British officials have warned they could pull out of the deal unless membership is formalised soon.

Its predecessor, Horizon 2020, involved more than 100 countries around the world and provided about 11 per cent of research funding to UK universities.

The new associate membership was meant to be signed off in June, but that was delayed because the UK and EU were at loggerheads over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which took effect with Brexit. Negotiations over cutting the number of customs checks that British goods face when exported to Northern Ireland are under way.

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