The European Commission says it can exclude Chinese participation in Horizon Europe and other sensitive research projects using new powers to exclude third countries that do not share ‘EU values’.
Maria Cristina Russo, director for international cooperation in research and innovation at the European Commission in Brussels, said the principles of science and research cooperation were being negotiated with China based on the European Union’s policy of being “as open as possible, as closed as necessary” – a phrase often used in the management of data information.
“The Commission has designated China as an economic competitor, cooperation and negotiating partner, but also a ‘systemic rival’ and that has guided our actions,” Russo said during an online discussion on China organised by the League of European Research Universities (LERU).
“We will build on the new provisions that have been inserted in the Horizon Europe regulation, article 22.5, which in fact will allow us to limit participation in the programme,” Russo said at the online event on 11 February,
This clause was inserted after EU research ministers agreed in October last year to add new provisions to prevent non-EU countries such as China and Russia from gaining access to sensitive research. While not naming specific countries, it could exclude their participation in individual calls under Horizon Europe, the 2021-27 successor to the Horizon 2020 programme.
Horizon participation is restricted to entities such as universities and research organisations established in EU member states and associated countries, or in selected third countries, but “it will also allow us to restrict participation to legal entities established in member states and associated countries that are directly or indirectly controlled by third countries – so that’s an important novelty which will allow us to close our programme, not only for security reasons as it was before but also in the interests of European companies,” Russo said, making it clear that the main target of this clause is China.
The EU will exercise this power for “duly justified and exceptional reasons”, according to the regulations.
Experts said it could hamper access to EU research programmes for Chinese entities such as Fudan University, Shanghai’s major research university which is setting up a branch campus in Hungary, due to start operating in 2024.
Extending Horizon to non-EU members
Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in a keynote address to the LERU online event, said: “We can’t be naïve” about China.
“The EU has a key role to pay in rebalancing cooperation with China, making it more sustainable by levelling the playing field and mitigating risk. And, as we need the EU in dealing with China, member states need to stand together and that is not given, as we have seen,” she said, referring to Hungary.
The EU allows select non-EU countries to participate in its Horizon research projects and their researchers can apply for grants on an equal footing with EU researchers. Associate agreements were made with 13 countries, including Switzerland and Norway, under Horizon 2020, and they will be joined by post-Brexit UK under Horizon Europe if the draft protocols in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and UK are agreed and adopted.
The EU has floated proposals to expand the partner list to countries like Canada, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, while saying it would be more selective in choosing ‘like-minded’ international research partners. Previously, the United States, under then president Donald Trump, indicated it was not interested in taking part on EU terms.
China has shown interest, but it is unlikely that China will be treated in the same way as other countries, experts say.
In the past two years, the EU and several member states have adopted a more hardline stance against Chinese technology companies, with a number of countries, including non-EU countries, restricting the involvement of China’s telecommunications giant Huawei in their networks on security grounds.
Rules on foreign acquisitions of European companies have been strengthened, amid concerns about Chinese state-supported companies. EU industry policy is now primarily aimed at achieving ‘strategic independence’ from China.
In the research and innovation sphere, EU officials are particularly concerned about the potential for Chinese state-controlled enterprises and institutions to transfer data or intellectual property from Europe to China.
EU-China roadmap on research and innovation
The EU is currently negotiating an EU-China roadmap on research and innovation to govern research collaboration. The aim is to improve access and opportunities for EU researchers, research institutions and companies conducting R&D in China.
In particular, the EU is keen to get a roadmap in place to allow collaboration on green technologies and climate change research between the EU and China.
Online talks were held on 21 January between European Commissioner for research Mariya Gabriel and Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wang Zhigang.
Russo said that exercise “is not so easy” as the EU is insisting on “clear red lines”. These include clear commitments on the Chinese side for a “fair, non-distortive innovation ecosystem, for clear reciprocity, a level playing field, and respect of high ethical and science integrity standards,” she said.
“High ethical and science integrity standards are one of the [EU’s] red lines that we are discussing in the EU science and innovation roadmap with China and there are evident divergences which make agreement on this point quite tricky,” Russo said.
She added: “The Chinese initially were not so keen in having those framework conditions in the roadmap, and we are insisting a lot in saying that we would progress on cooperation on technical issues if we have those framework conditions in place.”
Carry-over from investment accord
Many of the elements of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) announced on 30 December in a joint virtual press conference that included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, are being carried over into the research and innovation roadmap.
The CAI accord to improve market access for EU companies took seven years to negotiate.
During the January talks with Wang, “progress was made in the discussion of the roadmap where we acknowledge the sum of the elements of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment would be usefully transferred to these framework conditions in the roadmap. We decided that, because it was in our mutual interest to start working together on possible financial cooperation in the field of climate change,” Russo said.
The European Parliament has still to ratify the CAI accord, with some parliament members opposing it on the grounds of China’s human rights record in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Reinhard Bütikofer, member of the European Parliament and chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, and a strong critic of the CAI, said during the LERU event that, though he believes in Europe being as open as possible, “even the most fundamental research cannot just ignore geopolitical implications because cooperation and interdependence can be weaponised and is being weaponised as we speak”.
“It is not coming only from China, but it’s remarkably strong in China,” he added.
Bütikofer also pointed out that “China very ambitiously and very forcefully pursues a programme of civil-military fusion in technology development”.
He added that different areas of collaboration could not be compartmentalised. “Obviously science and security realms have to be looked at under the same spectrum of science and values.”
He pointed to recent comments by a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs who argued that countries that wanted to cooperate with China on climate change had to acknowledge that China was not willing to accept criticism of their Uighur policies or of Hong Kong policies.
“If we allow compartmentalisation… we become useful to their political aims,” he said.
“Europe’s openness is being challenged, the balance between freedom and security reconsidered, and trust is affected, and we may face the consequences for academic freedom, international cooperation and mobility, but we must not be distracted in our mission as universities. On the contrary, this is not the time to be silent,” Van der Wende concurred.
Guidelines on foreign influence
Russo said the European Commission was developing guidelines for foreign influence in higher education institutions and research and education, noting that the guidelines were “state-agnostic” in that they do not mention China.
The guidelines “focus on the protection of key values and key research assets by looking at issues of governance, security, partnerships and values,” she said.
Such tools, she said, would enable a research relationship with China “as open as possible and as closed as necessary and [enable us to] continue to cooperate with China in a way that we push through our interest while at the same time taking into account that China is an economic competitor and systemic rival”.