LONDON — Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has launched a formal challenge procedure against the EU on the eve of a highly politicized trip to Northern Ireland for the latest Tory leadership roundups.
Truss, the favorite to succeed Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister next month, has accused the European Commission of breaching the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (ATT) by blocking access to Britain to EU science programmes.
Pledging to do “everything necessary” to protect British science, Truss announced on Tuesday evening the long-awaited launch of formal consultations with Brussels on the issue – the first step in a dispute settlement mechanism provided for in the agreement. EU-UK trade.
“The EU is in clear breach of our agreement, repeatedly seeking to politicize vital science cooperation by refusing to finalize access to these important programmes,” the UK foreign secretary said in a statement. “We cannot allow this to continue.”
Truss made the announcement – which had been expected for weeks – hours before he arrived in Northern Ireland to face his rival, former British Chancellor Rishi Sunak, in the upcoming Conservative leadership election, to be held in Belfast Wednesday afternoon.
Northern Ireland has found itself at the center of much of the fighting between the UK and the EU since the Brexit vote in 2016, with the UK government now threatening to unilaterally cancel parts of the Brexit divorce deal aimed at preventing a hard border between the region and the Republic. of Ireland, known as Northern Ireland Protocol.
Under the terms of the ATT, Britain was to join EU science programs as soon as possible, including the Horizon Europe R&D framework, the Copernicus satellite program and the Euratom research and training programme. But 20 months after the conclusion of the agreement, the British association has still not been formalized.
Talks between the two parties are advanced, but the Commission has suspended the final signing of the association agreement, accusing Britain of not respecting the Northern Ireland protocol.
The EU’s decision to link the two issues has caused deep irritation in London, where ministers counter that there is no legal basis for such a move.
In the meantime, UK scientists with grants under Horizon Europe have had to either drop them altogether or find new research institutions within the EU or another associated country.
UK Ambassador to the EU Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby delivered a letter to the Commission on Tuesday, marking the official launch of the consultations.
“This has been a long-standing source of frustration for the UK and we have exhausted all other avenues to try to resolve it,” a UK official said.
Another Whitehall official added: “There is no reason why we should not be part of these Horizon programs – they are using the Northern Ireland protocol inappropriately. They haven’t stopped chasing us for things they’re not happy with, so it’s time for us to start moving at the same pace.
But the EU27 nations received the news with a shrug and a tone of contempt. A diplomat from a northern EU country says it is ‘crazy to say the least’ to accuse the EU of breaching an international agreement, given the UK’s failure to comply with the protocol. North Ireland.
The diplomat said launching consultations “is not going to bring a solution, that’s for sure”, and warned it was “probably a necessary prelude for the UK to move towards its own program this fall.
The UK Treasury, which had set aside £6.8 billion to pay for participation in Horizon Europe or an alternative scheme, is already accelerating work on a local plan to support UK science.
An envoy from a major EU country has lamented the downward spiral in EU-UK relations, with the two sides triggering different dispute settlement mechanisms in Brexit deals after failing to bridge their differences through bilateral talks. “It’s not good for any of us,” the envoy warned.
With the UK having launched consultations, the EU now has 10 days to respond. Consultations must take place within 30 days of the request. If they fail to resolve the issue, the UK could then submit a written request for formal arbitration, in which an independent panel would be tasked with finding a solution within 100 days.
Britain’s move was backed by the League of European Research Universities (LERU), a Belgium-based network of 23 leading universities, including four in the UK.
“The obsessive stubbornness of [Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen really provoked this action,” said LERU General Secretary Kurt Deketelaere. “So, kudos to the UK government, whoever it is now, if they go ahead. This politicization of research policy really needs to stop, and fast.
The Commission said it “takes note of the UK’s request for consultation and will act on it in accordance with the applicable rules” as set out in the trade agreement.
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.