UK-EU27 collaboration in science: vital but uphill struggle against Brexiteers

The UK and the EU-27, on the assumption that the UK will leave the EU, have mutually benefited enormously from collaboration in the field of research, innovation and higher education over the past 45 years. As far as the UK is concerned it has mostly been stressed, not least by UK politicians, that the UK was a financial winner: much more funding for research and innovation came back from the EU than the proportional share of the UK’s contributions to the Framework Programmes. That was always a serious distortion of reality in terms of the quality or the number of proposals submitted. If one would exclude the rebate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated in the early 80-ies which reduces the contributions of the UK also to the Framework Programmes, only a few programmes (ERC, Marie Curie and some others) remain in which the UK is a net gainer.

And after a Brexit the situation without the Thatcher rebate would of course prevail. Luc van Dyck edited a small booklet, called Brexit facts and figures, with facts about UK and EU-27 interactions for the Brexit debate EuroScience organized with Academia Europaea and the Royal Institution in May 2017 in London. It would cost the UK around 2 billion GBP or € per year more than her current effective payment into the Framework Programme to participate in the same way as today.

The benefits have been manifest in several areas, apart from the specific research projects. Mobility of researchers and students is a major one. The Erasmus programme has given an enormous boost to enriching students’ international orientation. The various Marie Curie programmes have done the same for young researchers. So have the collaborative research programmes of the EU. The UK has seen its high quality universities profit from ERC grantees from the EU-27 (and elsewhere) coming to work.

The free movement of labour has diversified staff at universities and research institutes across the old EU-28. The high and what is as important explicit quality standards applied since a long time in the UK have been an example for many EU-27 countries.

As regards research infrastructures there has been very beneficial interaction between the UK and other European countries. This goes back to the period right after WWII when the UK was an active partner in establishing the first international European research facilities: CERN, ESO and ESA. It has continued until now in an EU-supported mechanism such as ESFRI, the European Strategy Forum for Research Infrastructures. Research funding mechanisms are another area where the UK and the EU-27 have mutually benefited. The UK Research Councils, or the Wellcome Trust (without which the public Human Genome Project might very well not have succeeded) on the one hand, and the Max Plank Gesellschaft, the CNRS in France or the Swiss Federal Technological Research System are cases in point. Some of these benefits are independent of the EU but most of them are not.

So how to maintain these very real benefits in a future situation of Brexit? Mostly scientists and scientific organisations assume that it should be possible to conclude an association agreement along the lines of current such arrangements between the EU and countries like Norway, Switzerland or Israel. But the problems are manifold. They have to do with the freedom of movement of people which is linked to such arrangements. Here it seems clear that the UK government made a major mistake to draw the red line of ‘no more immigration’ instead of trying to come up with sensible limitations which very well might have found a listening ear in the EU-27 as the problems with immigration without additional rules are manifest. Another problem is the financial one mentioned above, resulting from the Thatcher rebate. Some in the UK favour cherry-picking: opting for an association agreement focusing on participating in the ERC, Marie Curie and some other programmes. It should be obvious that there is no chance of the EU-27 accepting this. In any case, the UK look in a much more detailed way than both politicians and science organisations have been willing to do over the past 3 years as to what appear to be the limits of deals with a rule-based organization such as the EU. There is no negotiated divorce between equal partners.

And what about a no-deal Brexit, which increasingly no longer seems an unrealistic option?

There is little doubt that mobility of students and scientists will suffer, as has been clear since the referendum on Brexit of June 2016. Not only will special arrangements to promote mobility disappear, but in view of past history one can only hope that statements of UK politicians about the rights of EU citizens will materialize. Of course special arrangements, for example about the Erasmus programme, might be possible on a reciprocal basis. But for selective grant-giving programmes which form the major part of the Framework Programme, the UK will be a third country. That means negotations about specific programmes which will anyway bring to the fore the financial problem mentioned above in relation to the Thatcher rebate. The cooperation in Euratom will also have to be renegotiated in the case of a deal, though why this was not something that was part of prime minister May’s deal is a mystery. There are so many reasons why continuing the cooperation in the area of nuclear safety and security, and nuclear energy is vital that it is difficult to fathom why this was impossible. It will be more difficult in case of a no deal.

Finally, the economic damage a Brexit will do the UK will have its implications for science too, of course. Maybe Churchill explains more than anyone the irrational and delusionary nature of the debate (based on empire and the special relationship between the UK and the US as well as perhaps some other Anglo-Saxon countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and of course the ‘little England’ feelings of the countryside). Of course in the eyes of those who favour a no-deal Brexit, this is just the brilliant future that awaits the UK. One cannot imagine Trump to display the courage, international leadership and persistent determination Churchill showed in 1940, but like Trump, Churchill was fully self-confident in “his imperviousness to the opinions of others and to facts that didn’t suit him”[1] (the comparison with Trump is mine). While European scientists and their organisations should do what they can, the real battle for continuing a strong collaboration in research and innovation between the UK and the U-27 has to be fought in England.

[1] Ferdinand Mount, “Nasty, Brutish, and Great”, New York Review of Books, June 6, 2019, on two books featuring Churchill.

Peter Tindemans

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