LONDON – Brexit appeared to move closer to reality on Thursday, as the EU and U.K. set out new terms for a withdrawal agreement.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it "a great new deal," while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it is "a fair and balanced agreement."
Leaders of EU member states meeting in the European Council in Brussels subsequently endorsed the revised agreement, with Donald Tusk, president of the council saying, "It looks like we are very close to the final stretch."
However, the deal has to be approved by the U.K. parliament at a special sitting on Saturday and it is far from clear that Johnson can get enough votes. His minority government has been relying on support from Northern Ireland's 10 Democratic Unionist members of parliament (MPs), who said on Thursday they will vote against the agreement.
All other opposition parties, along with some members of Johnson's own Conservative party are against it. Amongst other objections, they regard it as watering down the commitment to the U.K. remaining in regulatory alignment with the EU, which is one of the main demands of the life sciences sector in both the U.K. and mainland Europe.
Johnson is sticking to the line that the U.K. will leave the EU on Oct. 31. But even if the U.K. Parliament votes for the deal on Saturday, there may not be enough time for the legislation to be enacted by then.
The agreement also has to be approved by the European Parliament, which has its next plenary session on Monday. Dacian Ciolo, leader of the center left group in the European Parliament, said that debate will not go ahead until the matter is settled one way or another in the U.K. parliament. There might be a need for a "technical extension" beyond Oct. 31, he said.
The main sticking point has been over the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the only land border between the EU and the U.K.
The sleight of hand to keep the border open and avoid having any checks on the island of Ireland is for Northern Ireland to be legally part of the U.K. customs union, whilst at the same time, there will be customs checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from the U.K. and vice versa.
Apart from worries about how that will be made to work in practice, opposition parties see the withdrawal agreement, by which the divorce occurs, and the political declaration that sketches the framework for the future relationship, as being a far harder version of Brexit than that negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May.
May's deal was voted down three times by the U.K. parliament.
While May's deal said the U.K. would remain in regulatory alignment with the EU, the wording of the Johnson agreement is weaker on that point. In addition, the commitment to regulatory alignment has been moved from the legally binding withdrawal agreement to the nonbinding political declaration.
In terms of alignment of drugs regulation, the political declaration tepidly says the EU and U.K. will "explore the possibility of cooperation" with agencies such as the EMA.
"It paves the way for a decade of deregulation," said Labour MP Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit minister. "It's clear the Johnson deal is a far worse deal than Theresa May's deal." It rules out the U.K. being in the EU customs union and having a close relationship with the EU single market, Starmer said.
Impact on U.K. science
Alongside remaining in regulatory alignment with the EMA and ensuring it is possible for companies to recruit staff from EU27 member states, the biotech and pharma sector want to ensure the U.K can continue to participate in EU research programs after Brexit.
There is a considerable amount of funding involved here. From 2007 to 2013, the U.K. put €5.4 billion (US$6 billion) into the EU research budget and took out around €8.8 billion. EU grants currently account for around 12% of U.K. university research income.
The Johnson Brexit deal would mean the U.K. continues to take part and contributes to the research budget until the end of 2020. It would then be necessary to renegotiate access, and if successful in doing so, the U.K. will only get out in grants as much as it puts in.
The three years of uncertainty following the June 2016 referendum when the U.K. voted to leave the EU already has made significant inroads in terms of research collaboration, according to an analysis published this week by the U.K. Royal Society, the world's longest established science body.
The U.K. has seen its share of EU research funding cut by almost €500 million since 2015. In 2015, the U.K. won 16% of total grants, worth €1.49 billion. In 2018, the figure was €1.06 billion, just over 11%.
The data also show the U.K. has become a less attractive destination for scientists awarded EU fellowships to go to another EU country to carry out research. In 2015, 515 researchers took up EU-funded fellowships in U.K. institutions. In 2018, 336 did so.
Brexit uncertainty has had a clear impact on the U.K.'s ability to attract funding, said Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society. From being the EU's top destination, scientists are put off looking for a job in the U.K.
"People do not want to gamble with their careers, when they have no sense of whether the U.K. will be willing and able to maintain its global scientific leadership," Ramakrishnan said.
However, U.K. Science Minister Chris Skidmore welcomed the Johnson agreement, saying, "This deal protects U.K. participation in existing science and research projects . . . while the new political declaration ensures discussion of future participation in EU programs."