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New UK-EU deal ‘good news’ for Horizon, says von der Leyen

“Historic” agreement clears the path for association to EU science programmes, says European Commission president

The European Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen has said that work can start “immediately” on securing UK association to EU R&D programmes once the agreed Northern Ireland deal is implemented.

Her comments came at a joint press conference with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, where the leaders hailed a “decisive breakthrough” in talks over trade in Northern Ireland.

UK participation in the R&D programme has been held up owing to a dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, leaving UK grant winners from the EU’s Horizon Europe programme unable to directly access any funding they win.

Participation in the EU’s nuclear research initiative Euratom and the Earth-observation programme Copernicus has also been put on hold as a result.

But speaking at the press conference on 27 February, the two leaders confirmed an agreement on the protocol had been reached.

‘Free-flowing trade in the UK’

The deal has been described as “a breakthrough” by Sunak and as “historic” by von der Leyen. Agreed in principle by the two leaders, it includes issues such as medicines approval, taxes on goods, and a Stormont “brake” for changes to EU goods rules.

“Together we have changed the original protocol and today are announcing the new Windsor Framework,” Sunak said.

“Today’s agreement delivers free-flowing trade within the whole of the United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguard’s sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Sunak said on Twitter: “We’re also delivering a landmark settlement on medicines. From now on, drugs approved for use by the UK’s medicines regulator will be automatically available in every pharmacy and hospital in Northern Ireland.”

‘Good news for scientists’

Von der Leyen said: “We knew we had to work hard with clear minds and determination but we also both knew that we could do it because we were both generally committed to find a practical solution for people and for all communities in Northern Ireland.”

Asked what the deal would mean for UK participation in Horizon Europe, she said it was “good news for scientists and researchers in the EU and in the UK”.

“The moment we have finished this agreement—so it’s an agreement in principle—the moment it is implemented I’m happy to start immediately right now the work on an association agreement which is the pre-condition to join Horizon Europe. So [it’s] good news for all those working in research and science.”

Her comments will likely be widely welcomed by the sector, but also mean the sector will have to wait for the deal to be approved by both sides and implemented before there is EU approval of the UK’s association to EU R&D programmes.

Details of the deal are yet to be published and Sunak has promised to give the House of Commons a vote on it.

Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society,  welcomed von der Leyen’s “commitment to progressing association as soon as the Windsor Framework is implemented”.

“With the Northern Ireland protocol impasse resolved, we need to swiftly secure access to the EU’s international research programmes,” Smith said.

He added: “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.”