Brexit and Beyond: The London Higher Europe Steering Group heads to Brussels

On the 14-15th march 2018, London Higher Europe (LHE) led a delegation of Research Managers from 7 London Universities to Brussels as part of our annual Steering Group Meeting. The Steering Group met to discuss the previous years’ progress on the LHE project and plan activities and focus areas for the year ahead. We took full advantage of our time in Brussels and the group also met with the European Commission, several university representatives and the UK Permanent Representation to the European Union.

The context of this visit is hugely important, Brexit has heavily influenced the direction of the collaboration since June 2016 and will continue to do so well past March 2019. London’s universities have increased their visibility in Brussels since the vote. There is still the (valid) criticism that London’s universities should always have been more active in Brussels, mirroring the activity of our Europe counterparts; indeed this was a key problem that London Higher Europe was created to tackle. However it’s important to emphasise that visibility in Brussels and maintenance of links between European institutions, regions and cities, has become even more important since the vote. We can’t assume these links will simply look after themselves, and institutions must seek to protect and augment their place in the European Ecosystem. Apathy is not an option when it comes to Brexit.

The day’s meetings started at 9.30am where the group arrived at DG research to meet with Neville Reeve, Senior Policy Analyst in the Horizon 2020 Policy and Foresight Unit. In regard to the last Work Programme for Horizon 2020 applicants were advised to pay close attention to the so-called ‘focus areas’ (circular economy, security, low carbon and digital economy) and how their proposals aligned with these. Looking ahead to the next European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP9), the group was pleased to learn that the three pillars are likely to persist, albeit with slightly different constituent elements. Chief among these is likely to be so-called missions-led research (housed in the Global Challenges pillar) with a unique governance model and alternative selection criteria. FP9 will, of course, also see the launch of the European Innovation Council (housed in the Third Pillar – Open Innovation).

The group left the European Commission and headed to London House, where the Greater London Authority, Transport for London and Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) are based. The annual LHE Steering Group meeting was then conducted and one of the highlights was a discussion around new initiatives, for example our new bid development service coordinated by Yulia Matskevich, who was previously chair of LHE and now lives in Brussels.

Complimentary to this service is our pilot concept for City-to-City academic delegations. This new initiative, which we plan to test towards the end of 2018, will see us working with partners in Brussels and the UK Government to go out into key cities in EU member states. The concept is to run thematic academic delegations to major European cities to forge bottom-up links with research institutes with complimentary research portfolios. This university-to-university engagement is part of an LHE work strand, opened last year, to build links with counterparts in Europe. In a similar vein London Higher Europe hosted an informal lunch at the Mayor’s Office during the trip, with external guests from 7 European Universities in Germany, Norway and Spain. This lunch was useful to test the concept’s appeal among European colleagues, and we have a number of leads to follow up on in this regard.

The day then concluded with a discussion on Brexit with the UK Government. We invited the UK Permanent Representation’s (UKRep) education attaché, Eleonore Hayden, to meet with colleagues and update us on how the negotiations were developing from an education perspective. The group found it useful to understand where HE might fit into the future relationship negotiations in general. Some of the more immediate insights were to do with the H2020 proposal disclaimers that have been placed on many call documents since Brexit. These documents outline that the EU is not liable for costs incurred by research completed in the UK after the March 2019 leaving date. While they are legally correct, they have generated a sense of hesitancy and opacity to the process of consortia-building, to the detriment of UK institutions and their European research partners. UKRep informed us that, if the joint report by the chief negotiators of both EU and UK is agreed by the European Council this week, these disclaimers will be removed. Although a seemingly small detail, this was a valuable insight and could be hugely important for UK institutions looking to join or lead projects in the months leading up to Brexit.

Overall the Steering Group meeting was a timely addition to the LHE agenda, coming one week before the European Council, where the transitional deal is expected to be approved by ministers and Brexit day moves closer. It is clear that, broadly speaking, Brexit goes against some core foundations on which the sector is built. But it is only by staying plugged-in to the various moving parts of Brexit that we can best prepare for the future and take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. This trip allowed our members to do just that, engaging with EU institutions, European partners and our own Government as a group of London institutions.

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