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Commission vice president calls for EU to spend more on research

Comments by Jyrki Katainen at Science|Business conference highlight coming budget battle among researchers, farmers and other EU constituents

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European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen wants to increase the proportion of the EU budget devoted to research and innovation. 

His comments, at a Science|Business conference on Tuesday, highlight the start of what promises to be a mammoth budget battle among researchers, farmers and others vying for a piece of the European Union’s most-likely shrinking budget pie.

With the UK slated to leave the EU, he said, “the next budget will most likely be smaller.” When asked if he thought it was time to reorder the priorities among the three biggest spending categories – agriculture, regional development and research – he answered immediately: “Yes." 

“This is my personal thinking. We don’t have a common Commission policy on this issue yet, but there are two obvious areas in which there is EU added-value.” The first is security, which he called a growing need if Europe is to protect the openness of its society. And the second is research and innovation.

“Science is global, and innovation networks are global. It would be reasonable to invest in this issue. It’s the way you improve added value. This is my personal opinion. I would put more emphasis into, for instance, Horizon 2020,” the EU’s main research and innovation programme. 

At present, Horizon 2020 accounts for about 8 per cent of the EU budget, agriculture 40 per cent and regional development 30 per cent. When asked, he declined to specify what he thought the right percentage for research ought to be, or what should be cut to make room for it. “Let’s not go there. I don’t want to provoke stakeholders,” he said. 

But he called the €120 billion figure suggested by members of the European Parliament – a 50 per cent increase from the current seven-year programme – “a good target.”

Even with such positive signals from an influential member of the Commission, the departure of the UK, a net contributor to the EU budget, means it will be difficult to maintain or improve the level of research funding. Katainen’s comments came in the same week the Commission outlined five scenarios for a redesign of the budget. 

With the UK averaging an annual payment of €7.6 billion over the past five years, “You don’t have to be a genius to know the next budget is going to go down,” Katainen said.

Katainen does not expect other net payers, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, to make up the UK’s share. Plugging the Brexit-related budget hole will require “creativity”, he said.

One element of such a creative approach would be to establish more financial instruments like the Juncker Plan European Fund for Strategic Investments, which aims to unlock as much as €500 billion in private and public investment to spruce up digital, transport and energy infrastructures.

The elaborate scheme is controversial among scientists for scooping €2.2 billion from the Horizon 2020 research programme. Also, because the scheme works through loans, many universities and publicly funded research and technology labs are not eligible to access it.

“[The fund] doesn’t solve all the problems of the world,” Katainen conceded. “It’s not for basic research. It’s not for universities.”

Yet despite the misgivings of researchers, the Commissioner argued that the Juncker Plan is paying back into research.

For example on Monday, the Commission said it approved a €25 million loan agreement with Maier, a Spanish vehicle component manufacturer, for upgrades to the company’s research and development division.

That follows a similar investment last week, of a €110 million R&D loan to another Spanish engineering firm, Sener.

Katainen said while there would be more financing schemes in the next long-term budget, the EU would continue to dish out grants. Finding the right balance between the two will not be straightforward, however. “I don’t have an answer to what this should be,” the Commissioner said.

Bright future

Despite the turbulence and change enveloping Europe, Katainen is bullish about the EU’s future, saying, “We’re entering into an exciting time, exiting a crisis-management period, leaving our existential period.”

His enthusiasm stems from a recent upswing in the bloc’s fortunes, including election victories for mainstream parties over populists in Austria, the Netherlands and France, which have restored some lost confidence, and the recent upgrading of economic forecasts for the eurozone.

Katainen predicted the EU would take on a stronger common purpose after the departure of the UK, most notably in defence. “The EU will be different in three to five years’ time. EU 27 will be different from EU 28,” he said.

Editor's note: This article was updated and corrected on June 29

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