The EU is blocking British scientists from joining the €95bn Horizon Europe research programme — the world’s biggest — because of the row over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

João Vale de Almeida, EU ambassador to the UK, said British scientists would become “collateral damage” in the dispute with the country’s place in Horizon increasingly at risk of falling “victim of the political impasse”. He added: “It’s very regrettable.”

The UK’s associate membership of Horizon was foreseen in the 2020 Brexit agreement but has been delayed by long-running disagreements between London and the bloc over Northern Ireland. The UK is preparing legislation which would clear the way for it to ditch parts of the protocol, which governs trade between the region and mainland Britain.

The stand-off has alarmed the UK’s university leaders, who have written to British prime minister Boris Johnson pleading with him “to make a personal intervention to break the deadlock” before it is too late.

In a letter, seen by the Financial Times, the Russell Group, representing 24 of the UK’s most research-intensive universities, said participation in Horizon was vital in achieving Johnson’s goal of making Britain “a science superpower”.

The letter from Tim Bradshaw, chief executive, said Russell Group universities alone had won more than 1,400 European Research Council grants worth €1.8bn, which he said was “more than the whole of France”.

Speaking to journalists at Westminster, Vale de Almeida acknowledged that British scientists had collaborated with their EU counterparts to play a key role in Horizon and he wanted that to continue.

João Vale de Almeida,
João Vale de Almeida, EU ambassador to the UK, said British scientists would become ‘collateral damage’ in the dispute between Britain and the EU © Charlie Bibby/FT

But he said the “lack of trust” between the EU and Johnson’s government — exacerbated by Britain’s plan to unilaterally rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol — was having “a negative impact in other areas”.

Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, has prepared an alternative plan to spend £6bn over three years on a new global science fund, if the EU refuses to let the UK take part in Horizon. University leaders believe Kwarteng could activate his plan as early as next month.

In a letter to British scientists this week, Kwarteng insisted the dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland and the UK’s participation in Horizon were “entirely separate issues and contained in different agreement.” He added: “We are disappointed the EU are politicising science and research co-operation”.

But the Russell Group warned Johnson that the UK being granted associate membership of Horizon was “an integral part” of the country becoming a force in science. It called the programme “the Champions League for research”.

Separately, Bradshaw wrote to Maroš Šefčovič, EU commissioner in charge of discussions with Britain over the Northern Ireland protocol, to ask him to intervene. “The UK’s full association to Horizon is at risk,” he said.

“We are concerned that much of the hard work that has gone before will be lost as the UK government prepares its own plans for alternative schemes — an outcome which will leave both the UK and the EU worse off.”

Vale de Almeida repeated his warning that the EU would not agree to renegotiate the NI protocol, part of Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, but said it could be implemented more flexibly.

But he warned that Britain’s threat to unilaterally legislate to override parts of the protocol would make things worse. “I’m worried by the low levels of trust that exist between the EU and UK,” he said.

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