The UK is triggering dispute proceedings with the EU, accusing it of breaching the Brexit treaty by freezing it out of scientific research programmes following the row over Northern Ireland.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary and Tory leadership frontrunner, said there had been a “clear breach” of the trade and cooperation agreement, with her department writing to Brussels requesting formal dispute talks.
The UK government claimed the EU was causing serious damage to research and development in both the UK and EU member states, with Britain frozen out of science research programme Horizon, Copernicus, the Earth observation programme, which provides data on climate change, Euratom, the nuclear research programme, and space surveillance and tracking.
“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,” she said. “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.”
EU sources confirmed the UK was asking for “formal consultations” – the first step of the mechanism to resolve disputes over the trade and cooperation agreement.
The move Truss, first reported by the Telegraph, comes after the two sides reached an impasse over the UK’s participation in Horizon, Euroatom and space services.
Grants had been approved for British applicants after the then Brexit minister, David Frost, successfully negotiated associate membership of the £80bn Horizon Europe programme but most are now being cancelled. The UK was due to pay a £15bn membership fee over seven years to participate in the programme.
Asked about the move, a spokesperson for the European Commission said: “The commission takes note of the UK’s request for consultation and will follow up on this in line with the applicable rules, as set out in the trade and cooperation agreement.”
At a press briefing on Tuesday, a commission spokesperson said: “We continue to recognise the mutual benefit and cooperation in science, research and innovation, nuclear research and space. However, it’s important to recall the political context.
“There are serious difficulties in the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement. The TCA provides neither for a specific obligation for the EU to associate the UK to union programmes at this point in time, nor for a precise deadline to do so. We look forward to a prompt resolution.”
The first step in dispute proceedings is the start of talks through a partnership council. If this fails, then it could go to an arbitration tribunal, which could impose remedies for non-compliance if either side is deemed to have breached the agreement.
At the time the Horizon grants were cancelled, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government “has guaranteed funding for eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe who are expected to sign grant agreements by December 2022 and who have been unable to sign grant agreements with the EU”.