In forcing a U-turn on Horizon, scientists are showing that the flaws of Brexit can be overcome | Will Hutton

It was a moment when it became clear that the high-water mark of Brexit had been reached and the tide was going out fast on what is now a disgraced and palpable failure. The universal and enthusiastic welcome to Thursday’s news that Britain was to rejoin the £81bn EU Horizon programme for scientific collaboration, albeit as an associate member, was a surprise – not least to the prime minister, who had dragged his feet for months in fear of the reaction of his Europhobic right.

But there was no Brexiter fury that Britain should stick to the plan B, the go-it-alone £14bn Pioneer programme, as part of a vision for Britain becoming a scientific “global superpower”. It was obvious that any such argument would have been drowned out by the entire scientific community saying the proposition was nonsense. To have any scientific heft, leave aside Brexit hyperbole about superpower ambitions, Britain needed to work with the world’s biggest programme of scientific, collaborative research. Just ask the president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith; Nobel prize-winner and chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute Sir Paul Nurse; the Academy of Medical Sciences; the Wellcome Trust and a plethora of others. Pioneer might have had a chance in the first flush of victory amid excitement over an “oven-ready” Brexit deal and the vast opportunities of “global Britain” that awaited. Now the claim would have been greeted with a loud raspberry. Time to beat a retreat.

It is part of a pattern of climbdowns from Johnsonian/Rees-Moggian/Frostian absurdities and the reassertion of reality. The first step back was the Windsor accords over Northern Ireland. Accepting a backstop role for the European court – one of the propositions over which Boris Johnson and allies had wrecked Theresa May’s premiership – allowed NI to stay in both the EU and UK single market. Since 2019, as a member of both, Northern Ireland has had the fastest growth rate of any UK region outside London. Now the climbdowns are coming thick and fast. Britain will not scrap 4,000 laws that had any association with the EU by Christmas; as one senior official told me, it would have removed the legal basis for much of UK governance. We are also abandoning the attempt to create a UK-branded standards kitemark, UKCA, after multiple industry objections that it was expensive and purposeless: what matters internationally is the EU safety kitemark, the CE. Business minister Kevin Hollinrake declared firms could now use both indefinitely (they won’t bother with UKCA) to avoid more “red tape” and “focus on creating jobs and growing the economy”. Quite right: but hardly Brexit ideology. The new border regime checking on imports of EU food and plant products into the UK, due to start in October, has been postponed for the fifth time. Ministers were concerned it might have been inflationary. To lower business costs, get growth and contain inflation, we have to conform to what our large andpowerful EU neighbour wants.

Similarly with Horizon and science research. Sunak hesitated for months, but the logic was inexorable. Even as it was he tried to argue black was white; that Horizon was not an EU programme but a global programme involving Israel, Norway and New Zealand and soon, he hoped, Canada and South Korea. Phooey. This is an EU programme open to some associates if they accept the EU rules of the game. He had, like Margaret Thatcher, won a rebate if Britain overpaid – ignoring that the EU had the reciprocal right. It was pathetic, but, given the traumas and psychoses of the Tory party, be grateful that at least we are back in.

A pattern is emerging. Because the government is intellectually and ideologically directionless, perforce it listens to a well-grounded argument in the absence of the capacity to make its own – and the unacknowledged truth that Johnson’s Brexit is self-harming. Britain’s science community did just that on Horizon, with the Royal Society’s Smith accepting his academy’s leadership role to consistently and vividly argue the case. The decision to rejoin Horizon “marks a pivotal moment for UK science”, said Paul Stewart, vice-president of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Plan B was second best.

British industry and finance should take note. It was good that Stephen Morley, president of the Confederation of Metalforming, wrote a strong foreword to the well-argued report on Manufacturing After Brexit last week from the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations (full declaration: I am one of its members). Some 46% of UK manufacturing exports, £169bn worth, go to the EU. It is as important to UK manufacturing as it was to UK science that, as far as is possible, bureaucratic costs are minimised, regulations harmonised and market access sustained. The government must press the EU to defer or change its rules of origin requirements, the report argues, particularly on electrical vehicles before tariffs get imposed in January. It’s one of several must-dos.

There needs to be a deepening of all conformity agreements and protocols. The UK must align with the new carbon border adjustment mechanism that the EU is introducing next month. The chemical industry must be supported in aligning with the EU’s Reach rules. The UK must join the pan-Euro-Mediterranean convention, and either join or find a replacement to the Lugano convention, which covers cross-border legal disputes. The UK must conform to EU small business VAT thresholds, plus regain the right to fill in one VAT form rather than, as a third country, the administrative nightmare of 27. As the EU presses ahead with new regulations that will affect the UK, there must be a proper system, involving manufacturing, in deciding Britain’s stance, and then disseminating good advice. The current approach is amateur, poorly resourced and unfair – with a roundtable in the north-east highlighting that what business is told is sometimes downright misleading.

British manufacturing needs to rally to this cause and speak with one powerful voice, as science has done – but also focus on Labour, whose stance on the EU is scarcely braver than Sunak’s. The more you get into the detail, the worse Johnson’s much trumpeted Brexit deal becomes. Brexit will be hung round the Conservative party’s neck for a generation to come: an important reason for its sustained unpopularity. In the meantime (Labour please note), manufacturing needs to get all it is arguing for. Better still, Britain will need to extend its new pragmatism and rejoin the single market and customs union. When it does, there will be the same universal welcome as there was for rejoining Horizon. The Brexit project is exploded. The task is now to repair the wreckage.

Will Hutton is an Observer columnist


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