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Swiss expect to wait until at least 2025 for association after UK Horizon Europe deal


Swiss university leaders expect to have to wait until at least 2025 before associating to Horizon Europe after the UK struck a deal with Brussels last week.

Switzerland, like the UK, has been excluded due to wider political disagreements with the EU. But while the UK solved its dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol in February this year, Switzerland hasn’t even formally re-started talks with Brussels that could pave the way for association.

“We feel alone in the middle of Europe,” said Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva.

He thinks the association of the UK, while good news for research, weakens the position of Switzerland, because the absence of both countries from the programme was a much bigger problem for the EU than now just Switzerland is excluded.

A joint UK-Swiss university campaign, Stick to Science, had campaigned for association to be delinked from politics, although so far it has been unsuccessful.

Not everyone is as pessimistic as Flückiger, but the timeline for Swiss association now depends on the speed of wider talks with the EU to create a new political relationship.

Bern walked away from the negotiating table in 2021, meaning Horizon Europe association talks haven’t even started. As with the UK, the Commission has linked progress in these talks to association negotiations.

Switzerland will hold federal elections in October, after which it is hoped the federal government and EU will agree a “common declaration” on their wider political relationship, before the Swiss government agrees on a full negotiating mandate – possibly next spring – to actually strike a deal with Brussels. But it’s not clear exactly at which stage the Commission would open Horizon Europe association talks.

“The currently ongoing exploratory talks on the future of our relationship include a basket related to the possible association of Switzerland to the Union’s flagship programmes in the area of research (e.g. Horizon Europe) and beyond,” a Commission spokeswoman said. “It is part of a broader package on which the EU looks forward to find an overall political agreement, hopefully in the coming months.”

A “positive outcome” in these exploratory talks “could open the door to resuming our cooperation on research and innovation,” she said.

There’s also the complication that a new Commission will be installed following European elections next June. This is likely to bog down any talks with the Swiss as Brussels rejigs Commissioners.

Flückiger is worried that the Commission will want to see firm high-level political agreement from Switzerland before permitting Horizon talks to start. “I expect it will take time,” he said. “I’m quite afraid it will take at least one or two years.”

This would push association to 2025 or 2026, at which point it might be too late to join the framework programme at all, he estimates.

Buoyed by UK deal

However, Luciana Vaccaro, president of the umbrella body swissuniversities, is buoyed by the UK’s deal. “It shows when political problems are solved the European Commission has the willingness to go forward with research” and agree an association deal, she said.

She had been “very pessimistic” about Switzerland’s chances of association, but with the UK deal in place, she is now hoping for a deal to be done by 2025, with talks starting under the new Commission next year.

Even with only a few years of the programme then remaining, there would still be value in Switzerland joining, in order for researchers gain experience in applying for grants, and to shape the following framework programme, said Vaccaro, who is rector of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland.

Michael Hengartner, chair of the board which governs the country’s federal institutes of technology, is now also hoping for 2025.

“The UK association to Horizon Europe is a great achievement for European science,” he said, because it “confirms that a political solution can be found when wished on both sides”. He called on Swiss and EU negotiators to start technical talks on Horizon association in the “coming weeks”.

One other unknown is whether Swiss researchers will be allowed to apply for Horizon Europe grants while association talks are ongoing – whenever they start – or if they will have to wait until a deal is done.

UK researchers were allowed to apply for grants before a deal was made, because the country was deemed on the road to association, but it’s unclear if the Commission will allow the same of the Swiss.

The Commission did not comment on the record when asked by Science|Business.

Swiss out of translation network

In addition, Swiss universities are upset by a recent Commission decision to exclude them from the European Master’s in Translation (EMT), a network and quality label for universities that offer MA courses in translation across Europe.

It only affects a handful of courses at the University of Geneva and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, but the Swiss see it as an attempt by the Commission to apply pressure to broader negotiations with the EU by cutting Bern out of EU-led programmes.

Flückiger is worried that prospective students will see Geneva’s exclusion from the scheme as a sign the university’s courses lack quality, “but it’s only for political reasons”. It “will pose a major risk to the attractiveness of our master’s,” he said.

Swiss universities are set to be excluded for the next round of the scheme, from 2024-2029. The League of European Research Universities (Leru) said it was “dismayed” by the decision, with a five-year exclusion “particularly harsh and disproportionate”.

The Commission has excluded Switzerland because it is not a member of the Erasmus+ mobility programme, but this was not an obstacle when Bern was excluded back in 2014, pointed out Leru.

The expulsion from the EMT is the latest move by the Commission to cut Switzerland out of European research and education networks while broader political issues are unresolved.

In January, Swiss researchers sounded the alarm after being booted out of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, which plans the continent’s scientific equipment needs.

The Commission was “using anything” to create “pressure” on Switzerland, complained Flückiger, who warned of a steady “erosion” of links with the EU.

A Commission spokesperson insisted there had been no “direct exclusion targeting Switzerland”, but confirmed that until wider political talks have “resulted in the full participation of Switzerland in Erasmus+, Swiss universities do not fulfil the eligibility criteria for the EMT network.”

As for why Switzerland was not ejected from the network after its rift with the EU in 2014, the spokesperson said, “The reason why Switzerland could apply for membership in the previous call is that there were still negotiations ongoing on the Institutional Framework Agreement, which were terminated by the Swiss in 2021. In 2014, there was a transitional solution for Erasmus+ participation of Switzerland, which is not currently the case.”

Source: Science Business

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