The new Northern Ireland Protocol deal paves the way for the UK to join the EU’s flagship research programme, Ursula von der Leyen has said.
The European Commission president hailed potential access for the UK to join Horizon Europe as “good news” for scientists and researchers on both sides of the Channel.
When the UK left the EU, its participation as a full member of the EU’s 100 billion euro (£88.6 billion) scheme was essentially ruled out, but a new role as an associate member was part of the post-Brexit trade deal.
But Brussels has so far blocked Britain’s requests for access because of the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, leading UK ministers to draw up contingency plans for alliances outside the bloc.
Following months of contentious talks, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ms von der Leyen on Monday announced a breakthrough on fixing issues with the post-Brexit trading arrangements in the region.
Asked whether the agreement would help the UK’s bid to access the science programme, Ms von der Leyen told a press conference in Windsor: “Yes, this Windsor Framework is good news for scientists and researchers in the European Union and in the UK.
“Because, of course, the moment we have finished this agreement – so it’s an agreement in principle – the moment it’s implemented I am happy to start immediately right now the work on an association agreement, which is the precondition to join Horizon Europe.
“So good news for all those who are working in research and science.”
The president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, called for swift association to Horizon and said delays have “damaged” science across Europe.
He said: “We welcome Ursula von der Leyen’s commitment to progressing association as soon as the Windsor Framework is implemented.
“It is more than two years since the Government agreed association to Horizon Europe, Euratom and Copernicus – two years of delays that have damaged science across Europe.
“These schemes support outstanding international collaboration, and the sooner we join them, the better for everyone.
“The Government has stated that the UK is more committed than ever to strong research collaboration with our European partners.
“In light of the recent return to the Treasury of a £1.6 billion underspend that was intended for association to Horizon Europe, it is reassuring that Treasury sources are now reported as saying that the money will be spent in subsequent financial years.”
Martin Smith, head of policy lab at Wellcome, said: “After years of uncertainty, the announcement that work to finalise the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe can begin imminently will come as a massive relief for scientists on both sides of the channel.”
The Government recently signalled the UK would be “ready to go it alone” as it acknowledged the science sector wanted clarity on the issue.
The new Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Michelle Donelan, said earlier this month that she was prepared to snub Horizon and create an alternative alliance with the United States, Japan and Switzerland.