On 14 November, a draft agreement of the terms for the UK’s fast approaching plunge into Brexit was backed by senior UK decision makers. However, there are still doubts about whether it will pass the vote in parliament required for final approval set for 7 December.
After two years of talks, this would mean going back to the negotiating table with little time left to come up with a new agreement. This would increase the risk of a no-deal Brexit ― the UK crashing out of the EU without any form of agreement ― a fear shared by much of the scientific community. Furthermore, the success of the agreement still hinges on approval by the European Parliament. European Council President Donald Tusk has called an emergency summit for 25 November to discuss the new draft.
Many issues affecting research, innovation and technology have been clarified in the draft agreement. The proposed 585-page agreement would allow EU citizens currently living in the UK to claim permanent residence and an accompanying 7-page document proposes visa-free travel for short stays to and from EU member states. However, Teresa May has confirmed that ‘free movement’ between the UK and EU will end. The UK would also leave the European Atomic Energy Community, Euratom, a nuclear-regulation body.
However, a number of details relevant to science have yet to be ironed out. One of the biggest uncertainties is the UK’s future membership to the world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France as well as EU funding for the UK-based Joint European Torus near Oxford. The current contract will expire at the end of this year. Another uncertainty is whether the UK will be allowed to participate in future EU research-funding programmes.
During the transition period, UK scientists will still be eligible for research grants under the current Horizon 2020, but whether they will be able to participate in the EU’s next major research funding programme starting in 2021― worth €100 billion― has not been confirmed. The current draft might be the best scenario for research and once an agreement is in place, important science-related issues can start being properly addressed. For example, one option could be allowing the UK to participate in Horizon Europe as an ‘associate’ country, similar to the status held by non-EU countries like Israel and Norway.
The UK still risks losing £1 billion (approximately € 1.13 billion) a year that currently comes from EU funding sources in the worst-case-scenario ― no deal. This could mean immediately losing access to important funding streams under Horizon 2020. In this case, the UK government has agreed to underwrite any successful EU grant applications secured before 29 March 2019. In addition, import and export of essential goods including food, scientific equipment and medicines will most likely be disrupted.
The proposed backstop preventing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, and Northern Ireland, part of the UK, could end up being beneficial to scientists. This would keep the UK and EU customs aligned until a suitable agreement can be reached. However, the UK would be obliged to accept EU laws without contributing to their making, which could prove unacceptable for many staunch Brexiteers.
Prof Paul Nurse, director of London’s Francis Crick Institute, thinks the agreement is disappointing for scientists and told Nature “For UK science to continue to flourish, the government needs to be much more welcoming, both in tone and policy.” Others are more positive about the potential outcome. Pro-vice chancellor of the University of Oxford Prof Alastair Buchan says the deal “looks pretty good.
One thing seems certain, however, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and enter a transition period that will end on 31 December 2020. The draft at least offers some hope for UK researchers that the proposed Brexit deal will change but not end the UK’s involvement in European research.