Agreeing a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol will “immediately” open up talks on the UK joining the multi-billion pound Horizon research programme, Ursula von der Leyen has said.

The European Commission President has agreed a “deal in principle” with Rishi Sunak to overhaul the protocol in a bid to iron out the issues affecting post-Brexit trade and rules in Northern Ireland.

And in a bid to further sell the new agreement, called the Windsor Framework, Ms von der Leyen said passing the deal would pave the way for the UK to rejoin the €95.5bn (£84.1bn) Horizon scheme.

“This Windsor Framework is good news for scientists and researchers in the European Union and in the UK,” she told a press conference in Windsor.

“The moment we have finished this agreement… 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.”

Such a move, she added, would be “good news for all those who are working in research and science”.

UK universities have seen their research funds plummet as a result of being frozen out of the Horizon scheme, sparking fears of a major brain drain as academics and scientists decide to move to the EU to continue their research.

Up until the UK formally left the EU in 2020, British universities were some of the biggest beneficiaries in research funding from Horizon, with Oxford netting €523m (£460m) during the last iteration of the scheme, while Cambridge secured €483m (£433m).

The stalemate over the protocol meant the £1.6bn in government funds set aside for the UK’s participation in the research programme was returned to the Treasury earlier this month, sparking outrage among the science sector.

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.”

Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman Layla Moran welcomed the news that the UK’s accession to Horizon was back on the table. “The uncertainty over Horizon Europe has been hurting academia and our science sector. I hope this happens quickly and we can start to reverse the damage already caused,” she said.

By admin