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UK contingency plans suggest that Downing Street is preparing for the worst - from the Telegraph

Eleven months on from Brexit, relations between the UK and the European Commission are now in a parlous state.

This article dated 09.11.21 is by Harry Yorke, WHITEHALL EDITOR for the Telegraph's "Beyond Brexit Bulletin".

After the signing of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement last Christmas, there was genuine hope on both sides of the Channel that the Brexit boil had finally been lanced and that relations would gradually begin to improve. Instead, it took only a matter of weeks for the two sides to be back at each other's throats over the Northern Ireland Protocol - a row which has only intensified since and now threatens to escalate by the end of the month. Throw into the mix a squabble about the status of ambassadors, a paltry deal on financial services, and now a major stand-off with France over fishing rights, and what is left is a perfect storm. It is therefore unsurprising that the Government has begun drawing up contingency plans to withdraw from three major EU research programmes, as revealed by The Telegraph this weekend. They are Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom, the bloc’s €90 billion (£77 billion) flagship scientific, satellite, and nuclear programmes, which would be replaced by UK domestic alternatives should ministers decide to pull theplug. The plans have been commissioned because of repeated delays in admitting the UK to the programmes, meaning British institutions are missing out on research and funding opportunities. Unless the UK is admitted soon, ministers believe the programmes will no longer represent value for money. But the UK's actions are also being driven by a sense of foul play. Lord Frost believes this delay is a deliberate bid by Brussels to create leverage in the talks over NI and to prevent the UK from triggering Article 16 should the Government fail to get the concessions it wants. Should negotiations over the protocol collapse by the end of this month - now the most likely scenario - it appears inevitable that Lord Frost will then be forced to reach for the nuclear option. At this point, the EU is expected to retaliate, with the UK’s admission to the three programmes a likely casualty. Drawing up domestic alternatives is therefore considered not only necessary to mitigate the potential damage to the UK’s scientific sector, but to ensure the UK is, politically, prepared to walk away. Given the state of the talks, and the wider UK-EU relationship, planning for the worst, therefore, appears to make sense. But there is also a serious risk that in doing so, the UK is playing into the commission’s hands. Over the past fortnight, UK officials have become increasingly frustrated at Brussels' failure to compromise in the talks over the protocol. Rather than treating their proposals as an opening offer, the UK side believes the commission is presenting its plan as a fait accompli and ignoring the counter-proposals put forward by Lord Frost. It is getting away with this in public, they believe, by briefing that the UK has already made its mind up and will trigger Article 16 come what may. Therefore, any further movement on its part is futile. Lord Frost’s team is alive to this issue and has begun its own counter-briefing to stress that the UK’s overwhelming preference is to strike a deal. However, the latest disclosure - that the Government has begun drawing up contingency plans for withdrawing from key research programmes - is only likely to reinforce the Article 16 narrative that is fast taking hold, both at home and in Europe. As one senior Whitehall source put it to me last week: “The more time that goes on with little progress, the more that becomes the most likely scenario. If that’s all we have got to work with then it’s not the nuclear option it’s the only option. “We are fulfilling what they expect us to do.” With time running out to find a solution both sides can live with, there is a real danger that the Northern Ireland Protocol is brought down not by unbridgeable differences in policy, but by a corrosive feeling of mistrust. Should that happen, both sides will share responsibility for the inevitable consequences that follow.

Lord Frost is believed to have been working with Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on reviving a British alternative to Horizon Europe. Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP Photo

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