UK could threaten to pull out of EU's €100bn research programme amid Brexit deal row

·4 min read
Lord Frost - Aaron Chown /PA
Lord Frost - Aaron Chown /PA

The UK could threaten to pull out of the EU's €100bn flagship research programme after Brussels was accused on Friday of holding up access in the latest act of "political" vengeance, The Telegraph can disclose.

In what looks set to become the next major political dispute between the two sides, senior Government sources have claimed that the EU is "purposely going slow" on formalising the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe.

Ministers are similarly frustrated at the progress of the UK’s association to Euratom Research and Training, the nuclear research programme linked to Horizon, and Copernicus, the earth monitoring satellite project.

The Government argues that the hold up and the decision to exclude the UK from shaping the programmes beyond what it had anticipated will negatively impact participants and has called into question their value for money.

The row is due to come to a head next week when Lord Frost, the Cabinet minister in charge of EU relations, takes part in the EU-UK Partnership Council, a joint-committee set up to oversee the implementation of the Brexit trade deal.

No 10 has not ruled out withdrawing from EU programmes

While Downing Street wants to remain in the programmes, The Telegraph understands that it has not ruled out withdrawing from them should the EU fail to resolve the dispute.

It comes as Brussels prepares next week to try and break the long-standing deadlock over the Northern Ireland Protocol by offering to remove barriers to British medicine supplies crossing the Irish Sea.

The EU is expected to set out the plan on Wednesday when the joint committee which oversees the protocol meets in London. It will involve changing EU law subject to agreement from member states as an olive branch in the tense negotiations.

Under the protocol, which prevents a hard Irish border, Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules for medicines and medical equipment, meaning new checks are due to be imposed when a year-long grace period expires at the end of 2021.

Medicines made in Britain - which account for the vast majority imported into the province - will also have to have separate licenses, testing and inspections before they can be used.

British manufacturers of non-branded drugs have warned that generic medicines make up four out of every five medicines prescribed in the NHS, with supplies of drugs for cancer, epilepsy and diabetes at risk because of the cost of the extra red tape.

EU to ramp up pressure on Britain

However, in return, it is expected that Brussels will ratchet up pressure on the UK to agree to a firm timetable for introducing new checks and infrastructure at the border, as required under the protocol.

The EU has also pushed for the UK to align with its food safety and animal health rules, although it is now increasingly pessimistic of reaching an agreement.

Should the two sides fail to break the deadlock, EU member states have signalled they are increasingly willing to consider retaliatory measures, such as triggering dispute resolution procedures which could ultimately end in tariffs and suspending elements of the Brexit trade deal.

Last night a Government spokesman said: "We have yet to receive any details of their position. When we do, we will consider it carefully."

The UK secured associate membership to the Horizon programme as part of the Brexit trade deal, enabling British universities, companies and researchers to continue bidding for pan-European funding with other member countries.

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

However, the UK claims that formalising its participation in the latest programme should have begun a month ago and that the EU had agreed in the Brexit trade deal to do so at the earliest opportunity.

While the UK’s hand in shaping these programmes was always set to be limited after Brexit, the Government also claims that the level to which it has been shut out is higher than anticipated.

'Politically driven' response by EU

The UK believes the delay is "politically driven" and an attempt by the EU to heap fresh pressure on the UK over the Northern Ireland Protocol, after it acted unilaterally to extend a series of grace periods to ease trade friction for firms moving a wide array of goods across the Irish Sea.

"The UK remains open to these programmes on the right terms, but the overall attractiveness is being called into question by the EU’s political point scoring," a senior Government source said last night.

"This approach goes against the requirements of the agreement reached with the EU just six months ago, and we expect a swift resolution.

"The delay is in no one’s interest because we can’t participate but they will lose out from our financial contribution to it."

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