17 Nov 2020   |   News

Budget rollercoaster stuck again after veto on rule of law

The fate of the €4 billion top-up for Horizon Europe remains uncertain, as Hungary and Poland veto budget deal. Research lobbies continue fight to ringfence the additional money for ERC and Marie Curie grants

Horizon Budget

Research stakeholders are mounting a campaign to ensure a €4 billion top-up for Horizon Europe agreed last week will be spent on fundamental research and international student and researchers exchange programmes, as Hungary and Poland vetoed the EU’s proposed seven-year budget.

Soon after the budget deal was reached last week, research lobbies began sharpening their knives in an attempt to carve out the fresh €4 billion slice agreed by the European Parliament, the EU Council and the European Commission, and demanded it be spent on the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MSCA).

“With limited resources you need to put it there where it has the highest impact and added value,” said Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy at the European University Association. “You can’t replicate these programmes at national level,” he said.

“It is crucial to attribute at least the additional €4 billion exclusively to investigator-driven frontier research (ERC), early-stage researchers (MSCA) and infrastructures to combat the underfunding of 'Pillar I: Excellent science' in Horizon Europe,” said David Bohmert, secretary general of CESAER, the association of leading science and technology universities.

However, according to sources in the parliament, the additional money will be allocated to all parts of the programme based on percentages agreed in April 2019. The first pillar, which includes ERC and MSCA, is slated to receive 27.42 per cent of the overall budget. Even though the shares will be discussed again with the council, MEPs aim to stick to their proposal.  

MEPs have been fighting to reverse cuts that were made to Horizon Europe in July, when EU leaders agreed on €80.9 billion (at 2018 prices) for the research programme, including €5 billion from the EU’s new recovery fund for targeted research projects that address the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the total amount was significantly less than €94.4 billion initially proposed by the commission.

Based on the July decision, EU research ministers agreed on a linear cut across Horizon Europe, but reinforced the MSCA budget with €200 million taken from the European Innovation Council (EIC) budget. The deal also provided a flexibility clause allowing some of the money from the recovery fund to be allocated for fundamental research projects at the ERC.

However, critics say the clause is not clear enough and the ERC may not be able to access the recovery money. ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon has been advocating for a budget reshuffle that would help the ERC recover a 15 per cent cut it suffered at the July summit.

The additional €4 billion agreed last week will come from competition fines imposed by Brussels and unallocated funds, but research stakeholders say it should be fully used for ERC and MSCA and warn the top-up would have little impact if divided equally across the entire programme. “It doesn’t make any sense to spread this so thinly across the programme,” said Estermann.

Time to prioritise

While the other two pillars of Horizon Europe are also important, Estermann argues the first pillar, which includes the ERC and MSCA, could have greater impact sooner. “We think there is a clear argument why this should go there,” he said.

Universities are already writing letters to the parliament making their case for why the new top-up should go to fundamental research. “We have written to all MEPs on behalf of our 800 member universities and 30 university associations to make it clear where the university sector thinks this money should go,” said Estermann.

For Kurt Deketelaere secretary general of The League of European Research Universities (LERU), the ERC and MSCA must also benefit from the first pandemic fund top-up of €5 billion, whereas the latest top-up of €4 billion must be fully spent on ERC and MSCA projects.

At the same time, individual researchers are continuing a grassroots campaign started by two MSCA fellows who were disillusioned by the commission’s handling of research projects delayed by the pandemic. A total of 1,200 researchers from all over Europe are supporting the demand for a bigger budget for research.  Now, they are also demanding the €4 billion top up to be spent on ERC and MSCA.

A report by the European Court of Auditors published last week is also putting more weight behind the ERC’s claim for the €4 billion. The report, measuring the performance of several EU-funded programmes, finds that overall, the current research programme Horizon 2020 is performing better than other funding schemes.

The auditors say that the “excellent science” pillar – which includes ERC and MSCA – is much closer to achieving the goals set out at the outset of the programme in 2014, than other parts of Horizon 2020. The “industrial leadership” and “societal challenges” pillars have achieved less than half of the goals set before their launch, the report said.

Rule of law haggle leaves research budget ‘in the air’

The budget agreement last week came after weeks of intense negotiations between the parliament and the council, but it still had to be ratified by member states. In a meeting of EU ambassadors on Monday, Hungary and Poland decided to vote against the EU budget in a bid to water down new provisions that tied the EU budget with maintaining rule of law benchmarks set by the EU.  

“This has not been a good day for Europe,” Sebastian Fischer, a spokesman for the German presidency of the EU council said in a tweet.

“Although they would be net beneficiaries of EU funding, both countries are willing to drag this out,” said Estermann.

With less than two months before Horizon Europe is scheduled to kick off, research stakeholders are now worried that the focus will move on to solving yet another political crisis, instead of finding the right way to prioritise the Horizon Europe budget. Trilateral talks between the parliament, commission and council scheduled for the first week of December to iron out the final details of the Horizon budget could be delayed until the deadlock caused by Hungary and Poland is broken.

Several rounds of technical discussions on Horizon were scheduled from now until the first week of December, but the veto on Monday raises the question whether they could continue. For Estermann, the negotiations for the research budget were so far “a little bit of a rollercoaster”. “We finally came to an agreement and a week later is all up in the air again,” he said.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up