It falls to the Romanian Council presidency to steer negotiations on the next seven year budget - and with it funding for R&D in Horizon Europe. But with political infighting at home and a term cut short by European Parliament elections, some in Brussels are worried
On 10 January, luminaries gathered in Bucharest’s beautifully ornate Romanian Athenaeum to celebrate the start of Romania’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. The term officially began on New Year’s Day, just days after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he didn’t think Bucharest “fully understood” the role.
The most important task facing the presidency is to make progress on the 2021-2027 EU budget, the multiannual financial framework (MFF) – and with it future funding for research. The commission wanted the council to finalize the MFF by the EU summit to be held this coming May in Sibiu, in central Transylvania. But with the council at odds, the commission has pushed that deadline back to the end of the commission's term in October.
Nevertheless, Günther Oettinger, the budget commissioner, said he still wants the council to make “maximum progress” in the negotiations before the Sibiu summit.
There is much hanging on this for the EU’s future ambitions in research, because the final decision on MFF will determine how much money goes to Horizon Europe, the successor to the Horizon 2020 R&D programme.
But member states are divided over plans to pay for increased spending on research by cutting farm subsidies in the common agricultural policy, and cohesion funds that go to Europe’s poorer member states, including Romania. At the same time, the commission is asking net contributors like Germany to pay more for a bigger overall budget, with one of the largest payers, the UK, due to leave at the end of March.
Romania, for its part, has made “cohesion” a watchword for its EU presidency.
When one adds to these pressures Brexit and a timeline cut short by the European Parliament elections in May, it becomes clear that any country taking up the presidency now would have its work cut out.
But while Brussels sources speak well of Romanian officials serving on council committees, the intense rivalry between Romania’s president and its government has raised doubts about whether the country can lead the council effectively.
“There is still an enormous amount to do, and I’m just a little bit afraid that this is going to be a wasted presidency,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities. “I don't see much happening in the council during the period while the parliament is away, so we can only hope that they have a kind of flying start and that they can do a lot before the Easter break.”
Excellence versus widening participation in Horizon Europe
Politicians and lobbyists in Brussels have been bickering over proposals by Romanian MEP Dan Nica for the EU to spend more of the research budget in poorer member states that are behind in science and research.
But wealthier member states that invest heavily in R&D, such as Germany, want to maintain scientific excellence as the sole criteria for Horizon grants. Others, including Romania, favour a “widening” policy that would see more money spent in poorer member states with weaker research infrastructure.
In the European Parliament, a compromise was struck by the two rapporteurs, Nica and Christian Ehler, who represent the governing parties of Romania and Germany.
In an interview, Romanian research minister Nicolae Hurduc said that Nica’s proposed “defence” of poorer member states has been a “success,” since the parliament agreed to spend more money on “widening” projects than the commission initially proposed. “We should capitalise on this advantage we obtained in the parliament,” Hurduc said.
Given that the commission’s original proposal put the emphasis on excellence, any compromise whatsoever is arguably a victory for Romania and others on the “widening” side of the argument. But whether parliament’s compromise survives trialogue negotiations remains to be seen.
When asked in December about the tension between research spending and cohesion funds, Romania’s ambassador to the EU, Luminița Odobescu, argued, “all member states benefit from the cohesion policy,” adding that there should be equal access to research funding under Horizon Europe. But that raises the question of what standard of equality should be applied, which is at the very centre of the “excellence” and “widening” debate.
The European Parliament also backed proposals by Nica and Ehler to increase the Horizon Europe budget to €120 billion, a 30 per cent increase on the €94 billion proposed by the commission.
That is a bold move, considering that the council’s support for the €94 billion proposed by the commission was already in doubt.
Nica has repeatedly declined interview requests from Science|Business, but said at a press conference that he believes the chances are “pretty good” that the council will approve the enlarged budget.
Not everyone shares his confidence. “It will be not easy to keep this €120 billion,” said Lidia Borrell-Damián, research and innovation director at the European University Association. “With all the political turmoil and Brexit, we cannot take it for granted that this will be the budget.”
When asked what the council will do, Ehler chose his words carefully, laying out the reasons why he thinks member states should accept the proposal, without going so far as to predict that they will. He could not see Germany agreeing to pay more to the EU budget, unless more of that went on research.
Ehler also stressed repeatedly at a press conference ahead of the plenary vote in Strasbourg last month, in the plenary chamber, and in an interview afterwards, that member states had failed to meet prior commitments to spend three per cent of GDP on research. In his view, “it’s payoff time.”
Researchers want more certainty on Horizon Europe
What “maximum progress”, as requested by Oettinger, would actually look like is an open question.
Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, thinks it is “unlikely” that the council would reach an agreement on the size of the research budget by May.
Deketelaere said it “would be nice” if the council could at least confirm that the research budget would be no smaller than the €92 billion proposed by the commission, and if “we get a clear indication of percentage-wise, at least, what will be the share of the different policy fields [in the MFF],” even though “putting figures on that in euros is perhaps going to be difficult.”
Palmowski was adamant that the proposed “missions” in Horizon Europe must be settled under the current presidency. “We need to know what the missions are going to be so that the commission is then able to create the mission boards and that these commission boards will have enough time to then settle how these [missions] are going to work,” he said.
“We also need to have confirmation of the process of strategic planning and how that’s going to work. So we need agreement on some very important building blocks of Horizon Europe, because these need to be made to work as soon as possible.”
Parliament “won’t accept” less than €120 billion for Horizon
While the council needs MEPs’ permission to adopt the MFF, the European Parliament cannot amend the MFF directly, in contrast to its larger role in shaping Horizon Europe. That means MEPs can demand an extra €26 billion for Horizon Europe without having to agree a common position on exactly where that money should come from.
Austrian MEP Paul Rübig, a vocal member of parliament’s research committee, ITRE, said the parliament would not approve any version of the MFF that did not commit €120 billion to Horizon Europe. “Parliament won’t accept going lower than €120 billion.”
Rübig added the caveat that he could only speak for the current parliament, which will be dissolved at Easter, but also said he believed the pressures of Brexit could unite member states on the MFF before then. “My thinking is that if we get a Brexit by the 1st April we will have the MFF ready in front of the elections.”
Divided rule in Bucharest
As Romania takes on responsibilities for leading negotiations in Brussels, political life in Bucharest is marked by divisions between the liberal president, Klaus Iohannis, and the social democrat-led coalition government of prime minister Viorica Dăncilă, a former MEP.
Last year, Iohannis and Dăncilă clashed over the government’s rollback of anti-corruption legislation, with Iohannis describing Dăncilă’s government as “incompetent” and calling for her resignation.
The row culminated with a vote in November against attempts made by Dăncilă’s government to decriminalise certain forms of corruption and give clemency to convicted politicians, including the president of her own party, Liviu Dragnea.
Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has repeatedly called upon Romanian politicians to not let internal squabbles interfere with the council presidency, and Brussels policy wonks fear the infighting may hurt progress on matters such as the MFF and Horizon Europe. “It’s obviously going to be harder for Romania to make its mark given that these domestic political problems and frictions persist,” said Palmowski.
Relations between Iohannis and Dăncilă appear to have become more cordial during the weeks leading up to the takeover of the EU presidency. However, it is unclear to what extent they agree on Romania’s priorities for research and innovation, or even whose office will steer talks in the EU Council.
Political infighting in Romania has seen five research ministers come and go within just a couple of years, and EU affairs minister Victor Negrescu resigned in November, just six weeks before Romania took up the EU presidency.
Despite the infighting, Palmowski says, “We shouldn’t underestimate the commitment, the drive of some of the people in the [Romanian] ministries and in Brussels to make this work.”
Rübig agrees. “We trust in the specialists within the Romanian embassy. They are prepared,” he said. “I think Iohannis and the socialists, both of them want to have a success. That’s not a reason to have a battle on a research programme.”
Romania is Europe’s worst performer in research and innovation
Despite those warm words, the indications are that the Romanian government has little interest in research spending at home.
Romania has the lowest national R&D expenditure in the EU, at only 0.48 per cent of GDP. The country also has the lowest number of patents per capita, and comes last in the Commission’s Innovation Scoreboard, which ranks the performance of member states’ innovation policies.
The Romanian government cut the national research budget by more than 20 per cent last year. In August it cut €26 million from research, nearly all of which went to the "People's Salvation" cathedral, a vanity project of the Romanian Orthodox Church, completed in time for the centenary of Romania’s unification on 1 December 1918. Then in November, the government cut science spending again, by a further €49 million.
While Romanian R&D spending falls, Nica, a close ally of Dragnea, has spearheaded the European Parliament’s push for the EU to spend more on research.
But the target of spending three per cent of GDP on research “cannot possibly be met by EU funds” alone, said Palmowski. “It’s especially worrying if a country that’s holding the presidency is so far short of its target and shows little demonstrable signs that they are committed to reversing that.”
Romania has published a document listing a few priorities for research and innovation during its presidency of the EU Council. The document is available here.