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The UK has agreed to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme, with a €800mn discount to compensate for being locked out for almost three years since Brexit.
The two sides announced the deal — which must still be approved by EU member states — on Thursday after months of tense negotiations.
The €95.5bn Horizon Europe multilateral research programme is the world’s largest, involving more than 40 countries and covering areas from climate change to new medicines and artificial intelligence.
The UK is also participating in the Copernicus satellite observation scheme but has refused to join Euratom, the EU’s nuclear technology programme.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak sealed the deal in a phone call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday. He said it would help ensure the UK was a science and technology superpower by 2030.
“Innovation has long been the foundation for prosperity in the UK, from the breakthroughs improving healthcare to the technological advances growing our economy,” Sunak said.
The UK will pay nothing for the first three years of the programme, which runs from 2021-7, but scientists can start bidding for grants immediately. It will then provide almost €2.6bn annually but has obtained a slightly enhanced “clawback mechanism” to ensure it does not contribute much more than it receives.
The UK will automatically receive some cash back if it puts in more than 16 per cent of what it gets out. Previously this clawback required a performance review by the EU-UK Partnership Council that governs post-Brexit trading relations.
London said it had decided to pursue its own fusion energy strategy instead of associating with Euratom. “This will involve close international collaboration, including with European partners, and a new, cutting-edge alternative programme, backed by up to £650mn to 2027,” the UK government said.
Von der Leyen said: “The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”
UK scientists have been able to bid for Horizon funded projects, with the UK making up the contribution itself. But they could not previously lead bids, and universities had said this held them back, while some researchers had left to work in the EU.
Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society in the UK, said it was “fantastic news”.
“Science is all about international collaboration and association [with Horizon] is a big win. It allows us to continue to build on decades of collaborative research with our European partners and step up our global collaborations too to keep us as a nation at the forefront of science and innovation.”
The deal is a further sign of improved relations between London and Brussels following an accord in February that ended a bitter stand-off over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The EU had refused to let the UK associate with Horizon until that was solved.
One European diplomat said they would examine the deal carefully before endorsing it. “The finances need to be clear before we sign off. We are not going to pay the UK to come back into Horizon,” they said.
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