UK launches dispute proceedings against EU for alleged Brexit deal breaches

·4 min read
Liz Truss - Toby Melville/Reuters
Liz Truss - Toby Melville/Reuters

Liz Truss on Tuesday night began formal dispute proceedings against the European Union, accusing the bloc of a “clear breach” of the post-Brexit trade deal.

The Government launched “formal consultations” over the EU’s refusal to sign off the UK’s membership of its Horizon research programme.

The move marked the first time the UK or EU has used the dispute resolution mechanisms within the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, signed in December 2020, to settle a row.

Ms Truss, the Foreign Secretary and Tory leadership contender, said: “The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicise vital scientific cooperation by refusing to finalise access to these important programmes. We cannot allow this to continue.

“That is why the UK has now launched formal consultations and will do everything necessary to protect the scientific community.”

Despite the UK agreeing a £15 billion membership fee for the seven-year Horizon programme, the European Commission has refused to finalise the agreement because of tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Britain has also been denied access to the EU’s Copernicus satellite system and Euratom, its atomic energy regulation treaty.

Short of legal action, the escalation is likely to fuel tensions between London and Brussels after a number of long-term disputes over the post-Brexit relationship.

Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, on Tuesday delivered a letter notifying the commission that the UK had launched the dispute proceedings – the start of a lengthy process.

Under the Brexit trade deal, representatives from both the UK and EU will initially hold talks over the dispute as part of a partnership council.

If the council cannot resolve the row, an arbitration committee with an independent chairman is used to end the dispute. Its decision can empower either side to impose limited trade tariffs if the violation is deemed to distort trade.

Sources in Brussels said Britain would be unlikely to have the “legal grounds” to contest a breach of the trade deal in relation to the science programmes.

In December 2020, the UK and EU signed a joint declaration setting out their shared commitment for Britain to join Horizon and the bloc’s other scientific programmes.

The agreement, signed under the future relationship pact, set out that the UK’s readmission would take place at the earliest possible opportunity.

The UK was due to pay £2.1 billion annually to the Horizon programme to maintain access for British scientists and researchers to pan-European projects and funding. Brussels has, however, blocked Britain’s access to the £77 billion scheme as part of the dispute over Northern Ireland.

If the bloc continues to refuse, ministers have announced plans to launch their own £6 billion global science fund to back scientists and researchers.

British and EU researchers have called on the bloc to end the dispute and accept the UK into the Horizon programme.

Graham Stuart, the Europe minister, said: “Now more than ever the UK and the EU should be working together to tackle our shared challenges, from net zero to global health and energy security.”

The commission on Tuesday night said it “takes note of the UK’s request for consultation and will follow up on this in line with the applicable rules”.

A European source said ministers had tabled their complaint in relation to a separate legal spat over the implementation of the protocol.

The EU recently stepped up its legal proceedings against the UK Government over alleged breaches of the protocol, which ministers have sought to renegotiate.

Brussels recently extended a deadline for Britain to respond to so-called infringement proceedings, which were due to be answered on Monday this week, by a month. “They thought we wouldn’t grant the extension to Sep 15 and needed something for the press,” said the source.

The protocol was agreed as part of the divorce deal and prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU’s Single Market.

Brussels says the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, championed by Ms Truss, is illegal and has threatened to retaliate with lawsuits and by applying import tariffs on strategic UK exports.