LONDON — U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has triggered formal dispute proceedings against the EU on the eve of a highly-politicized trip to Northern Ireland for the latest Conservative leadership hustings.
Truss, the hot favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister next month, accused the European Commission of breaching the EU-U.K. Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) by blocking Britain’s access to EU science schemes.
Pledging to do “everything necessary” to protect British science, Truss announced Tuesday evening the long-awaited launch of formal consultations with Brussels over the issue — the first stage of a dispute resolution mechanism set out in the EU-U.K. trade deal.
” “The EU is clearly in breach of our agreement. They have repeatedly tried to politicise scientific cooperation by refusing final access to these essential programmes,” said the U.K. foreign minister in a statement. “We cannot allow this to continue.”
Truss made the announcement — which had been expected for weeks — hours before she arrives in Northern Ireland to face her rival, former U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in the next Tory leadership hustings, which take place in Belfast Wednesday afternoon.
Northern Ireland has found itself the unwanted focus of much of the U.K.-EU sparring since the Brexit vote in 2016, with the U.K. government now threatening to unilaterally override parts of the Brexit divorce deal designed to prevent a hard border between the region and the Republic of Ireland, known as the Northern Ireland protocol.
Under the terms of the TCA, Britain was due to join EU science programs including the Horizon Europe R&D framework, the Copernicus satellite scheme and the Euratom Research and Training Programme as soon as possible. But 20 months after the agreement was reached, the U.K.’s association has still not been formalized.
Talks are progressing between both sides, but the Commission has put on ice final signature of the association agreement. This accuses Britain of failing to comply with the Northern Ireland protocol.
The EU’s decision linking the two has caused great irritation in London. Ministers claim that such a move is not legal.
In the meantime, British scientists awarded grants under Horizon Europe have had to either abandon them altogether or find new research institutions within the EU or another associated country.
On Tuesday, the official launch of consultations was marked by a letter from Lindsay Croisdale Appleby, the U.K. Ambassador to EU.
” “It’s been a problem for long time and we have tried every possible solution to it,” said a British official.
Another Whitehall official added: “There’s no reason why we should not be part of these Horizon programs — they are using the Northern Ireland protocol in an inappropriate way. They’ve not stopped suing us for things they aren’t happy about, so it’s time for us to start moving at the same pace.”
But EU27 nations received the news with a shrug and a pitch of scorn. A diplomat from a northern EU country said it was “bonkers, to say the least,” to accuse the EU of breaching an international agreement, given the U.K. was failing to comply with the Northern Ireland protocol.
The diplomat said launching consultations “is not going to deliver a solution, that’s for sure,” and warned this is “probably a necessary prelude to the U.K. moving towards their own program this autumn.”
The U.K. Treasury, which had set aside PS6. 8 billion to pay for participation in Horizon Europe or an alternative scheme, is already accelerating work on a homegrown plan to support British science.
An envoy from a large EU country lamented the downward spiral in EU-U.K. relations, with both sides triggering different dispute resolution mechanisms in the Brexit deals after failing to bridge their differences through bilateral talks. “This is not good for neither of us,” the envoy warned.
With the U.K. having launched consultations, the EU now has 10 days to reply. The consultations must be held within 30 days of the request. If they fail to resolve the issue, the U.K. could then submit a written request for formal arbitration, in which an independent panel would be tasked to find a resolution within 100 days.
Britain’s move received the backing of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), a Belgium-based network of 23 leading universities — including four in the U.K.
“The obsessive stubbornness of [Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen has really caused this action,” said LERU’s Secretary-General Kurt Deketelaere. “So, well done U.K. government, whoever that may be presently, if they go ahead with this. This politicization of research policy really has to end, and fast.”
The Commission said it “takes note of the U.K.’s request for consultation, and will follow up on this in line with the applicable rules” as set out in the trade deal.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.
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