Britain rejoins EU's Horizon science programme in further boost for ties

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Kent Scientific Services in West Malling

By Alistair Smout

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain said on Thursday it would rejoin the European Union's flagship Horizon science research programme, ending a two-year post-Brexit standoff with the EU over science funding.

The agreement, which excludes the EU's Euratom nuclear research scheme, signals a further improvement in bilateral relations seven months after a dispute over trade was resolved, and was welcomed by British scientists.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's office said in a statement he had secured "improved financial terms of association" with the Horizon project.

"We've taken the time to negotiate the right deal for the UK, a bespoke deal, which works in our interest," Sunak told reporters. "(It) works in the best interest of our researchers and scientists but also in the best interest of British taxpayers."

Sunak's office said Britain would also associate with the European earth observation programme Copernicus, but not with the EU's Euratom programme, instead choosing to pursue a domestic fusion energy strategy.

"Today's political agreement on the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe and Copernicus will strengthen science across the whole of Europe," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on messaging platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

Under a Brexit trade agreement signed at the end of 2020, Britain negotiated access to a range of EU science and innovation programmes, including Horizon, the EU's largest funding programme for researchers with an annual budget of 95.5 billion euros ($102 billion).

The EU blocked Britain's participation because of a row over post-Brexit trade rules governing the British province of Northern Ireland, but February's resolution of that dispute opened the door to Britain rejoining Horizon Europe.

Britain had questioned how much it needed to pay to rejoin, having missed two years of the seven-year programme, and had guaranteed funding for UK applicants to Horizon while negotiations took place.

Under the agreement, Britain won't pay for the time it has been frozen out, and a "clawback" mechanism will compensate Britain if UK scientists received significantly less money than the government put in.

"Today's agreement in principle marks another step forward for the EU and UK to work together in the spirit of friendly cooperation on issues of shared interest," Britain and the European Commission said in a joint statement.

Universities like Oxford and Imperial College London said the deal would help collaborations on the world's most pressing challenges, as scientists expressed hope that work with European colleagues could flourish once more after the enforced hiatus.

"I am thrilled to finally see that partnerships with EU scientists can continue," said Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute. "This is an essential step in re-building and strengthening our global scientific standing."

($1 = 0.9328 euros)

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Muvija M; additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, editing by Elizabeth Piper, John Stonestreet and Mark Heinrich)