LONDON — Britain is rejoining the European Union’s science-sharing program Horizon Europe, the two sides announced Thursday, more than two years after membership became a casualty of Brexit.
British scientists expressed relief at the decision, the latest sign of thawing relations between the EU and its former member.
After months of negotiations, the British government said the country was becoming a “fully associated member” of the research collaboration body. U.K.-based scientists can bid for Horizon funding starting Thursday and will be able to lead Horizon-backed science projects starting in 2024. Britain is also rejoining Copernicus, the EU space program’s Earth observation component.
“The EU and U.K. are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who signed off on the deal during a call with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday. “We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”
The EU blocked Britain from Horizon during a feud over trade rules for Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member, the Republic of Ireland.
The two sides struck a deal to ease those tensions in February, but Horizon negotiations have dragged on over details of how much the U.K. will pay for its membership.
Sunak said he had struck the “right deal for British taxpayers.” The U.K. will not have to pay for the period it was frozen out of Horizon.
Relations between Britain and the bloc were severely tested during the long divorce negotiations that followed Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU. The divorce became final in 2020 with the agreement of a bare-bones trade and cooperation deal, but relations chilled still further under strongly pro-Brexit U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s government introduced a bill that would let it unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit agreement, a move the EU called illegal.
Johnson left office amid scandal in mid-2022, and Sunak’s government has quietly worked to improve Britain’s relationship with its European neighbors, though trade friction and deep-rooted mistrust still linger.
British scientists, who feared Brexit would hurt international research collaboration, breathed sighs of relief at the Horizon deal.
“This is an essential step in rebuilding and strengthening our global scientific standing,” said Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research. “Thank you to the huge number of researchers in the U.K. and across Europe who, over many years, didn’t give up on stressing the importance of international collaboration for science.”
The U.K.’s opposition Labour Party welcomed the deal but said Britain had already missed out on “two years’ worth of innovation.”
“Two years of global companies looking around the world for where to base their research centers and choosing other countries than Britain, because we are not part of Horizon,” said Labour science spokesman Peter Kyle. “This is two years of wasted opportunity for us as a country.”