“Brexit – that is not the future of Europe,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, in his annual agenda-setting state of the union speech in September. While few universities on the continent would be so dismissive, it is fair to say that Brexit has lost its sense of urgency in many places. “It has happened, it’s a shame, let’s get on with it,” largely sums up the mood.
This is how the EU has handled Brexit. As opposed to the UK, where the issue is at the centre of political power struggles, it has been de-politicised in Brussels. Capable, trusted administrators led by Michel Barnier are handling the Brits, and political battles are fought elsewhere.
In Brussels, the Barnier approach to the negotiations has been to build a coherent, well-oiled machine that takes the UK out of the EU in a number of predefined steps. It focuses not on flexibility and imagination, nor on constructive ambiguity, but aims to be efficient and transparent.
A much less passionate approach to Brexit means it’s the formal legal framework which counts. This reduces the level of threat for the university sector, compared to the warnings of a “bad-tempered breakdown” that the UK chancellor, Phillip Hammond, has articulated. The essential message from universities in the continent is that everyone would like collaboration to continue – and they will do their best to ensure this happens.
The Brexit bill
Nevertheless, there are several risky areas where universities must encourage the UK government to keep its cool if this collaboration is to be maintained. The most pressing among these is the financial settlement, or Brexit divorce bill. In 2013, the UK agreed, like other members, to pay into the EU budget for the next seven years, and the EU’s financial planning was worked out accordingly. If the UK fails to honour this commitment, as has been suggested during some of the more heated moments in the negotiations, this could have repercussions for research funding.
For example, if a consortium of researchers is awarded an EU grant in 2018 for a three-year project, the EU needs to know whether it will have the money to cover those three years or not. If the UK decides that it will not pay into Horizon 2020, the research programme, the EU will be short of 10-15% of the money needed.
The threat is not just financial. In a note on the Commission’s research and innovation portal introduced last week, the EU warns that British researchers funded under Horizon 2020 will lose their grants if the UK stops allowing freedom of movement at any point during the length of their projects.
Furthermore, the UK’s participation in the programme from 2019 onwards has to be decided as soon as possible. Since the UK is the biggest participant at present, this is important for everyone.
Once the divorce bill has been settled, association agreements formalising the UK’s status as a third country will need to be signed so that it can continue participating in EU research initiatives. Legally speaking, this is not terribly complicated, and it’s likely to meet with a positive reception from EU universities which want to maintain their UK partners.
For UK universities to be fully active in the EU’s higher education, science and research activities after Brexit, they will need to finalise trade agreements with individual countries. It will probably take around a decade to do this, and universities should seek to ensure their interests are represented in negotiations. For instance, countries that are sceptical about foreign providers could put onerous requirements in place to limit their activities.
Poaching top talent
The area with greatest potential for conflict is the zero-sum game over the recruitment of researchers. Good researchers are a scarce and finite resource. The UK has excellent research environments that allow them to fulfil their potential; it is unmatched as the EU research superpower. If the UK makes it difficult for researchers to secure visas, other countries will want to get their share of the spoils. Equally, in the event that the UK leaves Horizon 2020 – which could happen quickly if accounts are not settled – continental institutions will not be slow to use access to EU funding as a bait with which to snare UK-based researchers.
Looking at the big picture, the cool, rational continental approach favours university collaboration in future. This is a game for the university sector to win.
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