The UK has agreed to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme, with a €800mn discount to compensate for being locked out of the project for almost three years since Brexit.

Britain will be an “associate member” of Horizon under the deal, which must be approved by EU member states. The two sides announced the agreement on Thursday after months of tense negotiations.

The €95.5bn Horizon multilateral research programme is the world’s largest, involving more than 40 countries and covering areas from climate change to new medicines and artificial intelligence.

The UK is also to participate in the Copernicus satellite observation project but has refused to join Euratom, the EU’s nuclear technology programme.

Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, sealed the deal in a phone call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday.

On a visit to Warwick university, Sunak welcomed an “unambiguously hugely positive day for the UK science and research community”.

Von der Leyen said: “The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”

The deal is a further sign of improved relations between London and Brussels following an accord in February that ended a bitter stand-off over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

The UK negotiated associate membership of the Horizon programme as part of the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement between Britain and the EU, but was blocked from taking it up because of the protracted dispute over Northern Ireland’s trading rules. 

Under the deal unveiled on Thursday, the UK will pay no financial contributions into Horizon for the first three years of the programme, which runs from 2021 to 2027, but British scientists can start bidding for grants immediately.

These arrangements will in effect save the UK about €800mn in contributions. Britain will then provide almost €2.6bn annually into the Horizon but has obtained a slightly enhanced “clawback mechanism” to ensure it does not contribute much more than it receives in grants.

As a full member of Horizon when it was in the EU, the UK was free to extract more in grants than it contributed. But as an associate member, Britain is required to pay back any “excess” if grants exceed 8 per cent of contributions for two consecutive years.

Sunak said it was important the UK had taken time to get the deal right for taxpayers and researchers, including adjusting the financial terms and finalising the clawback mechanism, which he said offered “protection for the future”.

Since Brexit, UK scientists have been able to participate in bids for Horizon-funded projects led by their counterparts in EU countries, with the British government making financial contributions.

But UK scientists could not lead bids and British universities said this held them back.

Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, the UK’s independent scientific academy, said Thursday’s deal was “fantastic news”. 

“Science is all about international collaboration and association [with Horizon] is a big win,” he added.

“It allows us to continue to build on decades of collaborative research with our European partners and step up our global collaborations too to keep us as a nation at the forefront of science and innovation.”

Sunak said it was important to the UK’s nascent fusion power industry that the deal did not include membership of Euratom. “We heard loud and clear from our fusion industry in particular that they didn’t want to associate with Horizon,” he added. 

Scientists, including some in Britain, have been trying since the 1950s to develop clean, cheap energy by harnessing the nuclear fusion reaction that powers the sun.

The UK is planning to invest up to £650mn until 2027 on new fusion facilities, skills development, support for international collaboration and measures to accelerate the commercialisation of fusion power.

Ian Chapman, chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which runs the country’s fusion programme, said the £650mn financial commitment was comparable to the amount the UK would have contributed to Euratom.

“This is an unprecedented investment in fusion in this country,” he added, saying it would give the UK new research capabilities and allow the sector to tackle previously insurmountable challenges.

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