The saga of Britain’s involvement with the Horizon science and research programme is a case study in EU spite. When the UK voted for Brexit, British leaders made it clear that they were not seeking total isolation from Europe, particularly on issues of mutual advantage. If anything, the hope was that national independence could be the foundation for much friendlier ties. The ground could be cleared for an uncomplicated focus on co-operation in areas in which both sides stood to gain.
That was without reckoning with the petulance of Brussels and its determination to punish Britain, even at a cost to itself. If EU politicians had been behaving rationally, they would have jumped at the chance of continued UK involvement in Horizon, a pan-European programme that includes several non-EU countries. The bloc contains few universities of any note. It is a research laggard, particularly when compared with the likes of the United States.
This was, in other words, a clear example of an area in which the EU most likely needed the UK more than the UK needed the EU. But in an act of self-harm that brought politics into science, it effectively blocked the UK from taking part.
Now a deal has been reached between the Government and the European Commission that will see Britain associate with Horizon on a bespoke basis. But instead of putting the new agreement in its correct context – a recognition by the EU that it was in danger of becoming a research backwater – the likes of the BBC chose to report it almost as a major EU concession.
This follows a pattern. Too often the UK is portrayed as a supplicant that faces penury unless it is allowed to pick scraps off the EU table. Convergence is almost always deemed to be self-evidently sensible.
The details of the Horizon deal of course need to be interrogated to see whether it represents value for money for British taxpayers. Some Brexiteers are frustrated that alternatives were not pursued instead. They fear, in part, that this will be just the start of a process that could result in the UK eventually rejoining the EU.
To address their concerns, the Government needs to be much clearer about what it is getting out of its “reset” of relations with the EU following the signing of the Windsor Framework. Warmer ties should not be an end in themselves. Action cannot be confused with progress, especially with a partner as unreliable as the EU.