Finally, we have rejoined the EU’s £85bn science programme, Horizon Europe. For me, this is a huge relief, as I have been writing and campaigning on the value of the UK-EU science relationship since 2014. The UK science community is also rejoicing after years of frustration following the NI Protocol stand-off followed by Rishi Sunak’s dithering since February this year. But with this substantial pro-European victory, the ground is now decidedly shifting and there is a new sense of energy.
At the beginning of this year, things looked very different. Brexiter politicians were still pushing for maximum Brexit damage. The Retained EU Law bill promised a bonfire of 4,000 EU laws, with the explicit intention of salting the earth for any future rebuilding of common British-European standards. The Northern Ireland Protocol bill, introduced in June 2022 by then-prime minister Boris Johnson to unilaterally override parts of the protocol, sat menacingly in parliament. There was talk of a potential trade war with the EU as a result. And with the UK frozen out of Horizon Europe, the government was said to be devising a plan B for UK science to go it alone.
In a short space of time, it feels as though the Brexit pendulum has left that scary peak and is swinging back the other way. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill was withdrawn, the Retained EU Law Bill limped through only as a whittled-down minnow, the Windsor Agreement landed with an embarrassing collapse in resistance from the ERG, the UKCA mark guaranteeing safety, health or environmental standards was scrapped in favour of using the CE Mark – and now association with the EU’s Horizon Europe science programme has been secured.
You could even say “rejoining” the CE Mark and “rejoining” Horizon for those last two items, if you have a penchant for that word. Many now see rejoining Horizon as the first major step in a series of “rejoining” stepping stones all the way back to “rejoin the EU”.
Even those who do not want an EU future for the UK, but rather regard themselves as middle-ground Brexiteers wanting a pragmatic combination of Brexit and collaboration are asking what comes next in moving the UK closer to what they regard as the preferred sweet spot for the country’s future, no longer wedded to the failed fever-dream of the insatiable Brexiteer absolutists.
There are plenty of contenders for what should come next; from rejoining the Erasmus+ programme which supports students studying overseas ( Northern Irish youth have had permanent access to this since July), to forgetting about UK REACH and going back to the original REACH, the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals regulation where, like with the CE mark, the UK’s reinvention of the wheel has been pointless.
Some want a deal done with Frontex, the EU border security agency and there are even calls for elements of regaining free movement, where proposals from a Tory Brexiter have been made for mutual youth visa agreements. And on the science front, although we have just rejoined the EU’s Copernicus (Earth observation satellite) programme alongside Horizon, that still leaves gaps on Galileo (the EU’s GPS system) and the nuclear energy single market Euratom, plus security frameworks, rare disease networks, data privacy alignment, and other standards alignments, including veterinary agreements and the European Medicines Agency. There is a lot of sensible and productive stuff to choose from.
Of course, the big issues are rejoining the single market or customs union, or even the EU wholesale. These could be done in one go, if there was the public and political will. In fact, some of the key advantages this country could seize can only be obtained as full EU members.
Furthermore, despite the absence of political will right now, the public will is looking very pro-EU indeed. WeThink Polling (a brand of Omnisis) have recorded polls over the course of the last eight weeks showing that UK public support for “Rejoin the EU” is at 60% or above, and “Stay out of the EU” is at 40% or below (with “don’t know” removed). When that level hits a stable 65% or above, I understand that European capitals will start looking with serious interest at potential UK initiatives to come back to membership.
Yet the UK joining the EU is unlikely to come as a leap from nowhere. There is a strong argument for a gradualist approach of picking up each component piece of collaboration, examining it with open public consultation, and then patching it back in with full democratic support. This may well be the most pragmatic way to regain our losses without inflaming the wounds of yesteryear’s wars.
The European Movement UK, of which I am chair, does indeed want the UK to join the EU anew, but we have opted for a “step by step” approach at this stage for exactly these reasons. I personally believe this to be critical for reasons of democracy.
As the EEC and EU developed since the 1970s, our governments, politicians and national media did an appalling job of educating, involving and empowering the UK public in European developments. As we return to European collaboration, we need to ensure that we do so the right way, with UK citizens both feeling and being in command.
To do this effectively we need to prove the popular appetite for each step, involve public pressure in landing those steps, then prove their success. On Horizon Europe, I am fully confident that UK scientists can now seize the reins of this opportunity and prove its value. Yes, we have been bludgeoned down the rankings of grant-winning on Horizon over the last seven years, but now our hugely capable science community has the ability to go out and prove the value of what it has been passionately asking for. We in the wider pro-European public should be highlighting their successes and European collaborative successes in this area too.
Similarly, with the CE Mark, we should be documenting with case studies and data just how much the UKCA venture cost our businesses – and how much happier and better off they are now with the simpler EU system. This is the principle I want to instil over the coming months and years: As we pursue “step by step to rejoin” it is only in part about the “what” to rejoin. “How” to do that rejoining is actually more fundamental to our success and to our country’s faith in democracy and politics.
The energy we generate in our campign maintains the momentum I believe we need in order to have a shot at going the whole way, to joining the EU alongside Ukraine. Rejoining would strengthen our common European values and influence in a world where, bluntly, the three big markets and powers are Europe, the US and China.
We will avoid getting stuck in the Brexit sea of nowhere, but I also want to make sure we do not get stuck halfway back to the EU. Maybe the very nature of the EU and our options will change, but I do want to see my country at the heart of Europe politically. Our citizens should be given that choice at least.
So hooray for Horizon. It feels great to be back, but now let’s take the momentum forward and ensure that we the people get our say on rejoining all the European structures that we want for our better future.