Over the Horizon

Simon Usherwood |

No graphic for you this time, mainly because the ideas that I’m writing about here are part of an on-going process/struggle for me to generalise into something bigger. But I’m sure you’ll cope.

Blossom: new beginnings, ephemeral

The ‘resolution’ of the Northern Ireland Protocol with the Windsor Framework earlier this year was taken in some quarters as a sign for all manner of new cooperation between the UK and EU to unfurl. Sure, Windsor didn’t actually solve everything (and needs to be implemented), but it gave both sides an opportunity to try giving their post-membership relationship a more regular twist.

Top of that particular to-do list was Horizon, the EU’s main research programme.

The UK had always said it wanted to stay involved in it after it left, but the joys of 2019-20 meant that while there was a mechanism for managing this in the TCA, it got stuck while the Commission pondered some technical questions that had absolutely nothing to do with the Irish impasse.

Result? Two full years of UK non-association to Horizon, which meant no access to several of the funding lines and severely restricting rules for the rest. UK researchers, who had hitherto been both disproportionately active and successful, either wind down their bidding a lot or else moved to other countries that could access the programme (i.e. pretty much anywhere else on the planet).

Windsor undoubtedly unlocked this. Even as Ursula Von Der Leyen proclaimed the Framework’s agreement with Rishi Sunak in the random hotel-that-was-more-Surrey-than-Berkshire, she said work on association could start ‘immediately’.

Of course, starting work ‘immediately’ doesn’t mean agreeing ‘immediately’, and we find ourselves two months later still without a settlement, despite some rounds of detailed talks.

The core issue now is one of money.

The UK argued that since it hadn’t been associated in the first years of the current funding cycle (2021-27), it shouldn’t have to make contributions for the time it missed.

After some pushback by the Commission, that point was conceded, whereupon the government then suggested that this non-participation had a chilling effect on researchers, who wouldn’t be able to return to full capacity in bidding for some time, so a further reduction in contribution would be proportionate.

And here we find ourselves now, a bit stuck.

It’s not clear how this issue will resolve, but confidence still seems high on both sides that a resolution is possible, but it raises a number of reflections about EU-UK cooperation.

Big picture, small steps

Perhaps the central point of this tale is that the calculation for doing work together is now situated in a different context.

Haggling over funding is hardly something that was invented on the day the UK left the EU: a moment’s glance at any budgetary question from the history of European integration will tell you that much.

What is different is the scope for trade-offs.

As a member state, the UK was – like its counterparts – able to balance out costs or disadvantages in one area of cooperation by building up package deals. Everyone gets something they value, enough to justify more localised costs. This was not only in treaties, but also in linkages across secondary legislation, most notably the Single Market programme in the 1980s.

Now however, the UK is a third country, so the EU is able to structure things rather differently. Horizon is not part of a package of topics, but a standalone. Agreeing the Windsor Framework was the entry price to a new negotiation about Horizon association, even though the EU had connected it previously.

The reason the EU is able to do this is two-fold.

Firstly, this is about the UK joining an EU programme. So the EU holds the veto power alone: whatever requirements it decides it has for entry, it can impose on the UK and anyone else. If it were about creating a new joint structure – like the Withdrawal Agreement or the Trade & Cooperation Agreement for example – then both parties would have veto rights, but this takes us to the second reason.

Despite being one of the world’s largest economies and a state with global ambitions, the UK is still relatively small in the grand scheme of things. As a result, its options for alternative lines of action are rather limited, which in turn mean that cleaving to the EU becomes more of a necessity, which takes us back to that first reason.

Research is a good demonstration of this.

Throughout the past few years, the UK government has talked up building alternatives to Horizon that ‘better serve’ UK interests.

Only this month, it published details of a plan for ‘Pioneer’, as a back-up should Horizon association not play out. This would have the same budget envelope as Horizon, so surely it’s just as good, right?

Not really.

The value of Horizon and its predecessors was always much more in the networks of collaboration that it built, rather than the money per se. For example, I’ve just finished a project with partners across Europe, South Africa and Canada which has given me a bunch of new contacts and opportunities for future work that would otherwise have been unavailable.

So Pioneer, like the other Plan B options the government has advanced before, falls far short, precisely because other countries aren’t part of it. Witness the Turing Scheme, designed to make up for exiting ERASMUS+ exchanges, which still has nothing like the breadth and range of international partners.

As any negotiator will tell you, knowing what your alternative to agreement might be is really useful in deciding whether to accepting that agreement. But in this case, that alternative is so clearly inferior (and clearly so to all parties) that it doesn’t really work as an incentive to the EU to flex. No wonder the minister has not gone full-Johnson on ‘no deal’.

All of this is likely to be a pattern that gets repeated again and again in the future. The EU’s relative weight mean it can be pretty confident that the UK will have to bend to its terms, or instead wait until it comes around to that idea.

This isn’t to say that the UK has no options, but rather that it needs to start from a position of understanding this situation more fully. And in coming posts I’ll write some more about what it might do about it all.