29 Sep 2020   |   News

EU ministers hand €200M from EIC budget to Marie Curie in Horizon deal

The final budget and legal text for Horizon Europe is ready to be negotiated with the European Parliament, after research ministers agreed to cut all components apart from the Marie Curie researcher mobility scheme

Anja Karliczek

Anja Karliczek, German Federal Minister for Education and Research. Photo: EU Council.

EU research ministers have agreed on the final details of Horizon Europe, including a linear cut across its programmes to reflect the outcome of the July budget summit, setting the scene for a last minute battle with the European Parliament.

Ministers voted through Germany’s proposal to cut to all the components of Horizon Europe, with the notable exception of the Marie Skłodowska Curie programme (MSCA), which could see its funding raised by €200 million over the next seven years, with the money coming from the European Innovation Council (EIC) budget.

The budget and legal text is now ready to be negotiated with the parliament, but MEPs have already warned they will not back any deal that does not reverse some of the cuts agreed by EU leaders in July.

That saw the €94.4 billion proposed for Horizon Europe over the next seven years by the commission reduced to €80.9 billion (at 2018 prices).

In current prices, the budget agreed by research ministers today is €90.9 billion, of which €85.5 billion will come from the 2021 – 2027 long term budget. The rest is from the new pandemic recovery fund, a temporary scheme running from 2021 - 2024 to fund top-down projects that tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis.

Anja Karliczek, Germany’s research and education minister, said all member states would have “appreciated a higher budget” for Horizon Europe, but ministers had to work within the limits imposed by the political deal reached in July on the EU long term budget and the pandemic recovery fund.

“We have to live with cuts that heads of state and governments were putting on us in July,” said a senior EU diplomat.

Research ministers had two options on the table. The first was a proportional cut across all programmes, while the second provided an extra €200 million for MSCA, funded through an additional 2 per cent cut to the European Innovation Council’s budget.

Compromise

Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, favoured the second option, which said Karliczek, “is for the greater good of our research and innovation community.”

The European Commission defended the EIC budget, with Mariya Gabriel, research commissioner, saying an equal cut across all programmes would be a “realistic and pragmatic compromise.”

But most research ministers favoured increasing the Marie Curie budget. Austria’s research minister Heinz Fassman, said it is better to allocate more money to MSCA, even if it has to come from the EIC. As a new initiative EIC has yet to “illustrate it is an efficient programme,” he said. With the additional budget, MSCA could fund more than 1,000 stays abroad for EU researchers.

The MSCA top-up could have a positive impact on success rate. In some calls only 6 per cent of applicants are successful.

But Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, chair of the MSCA alumni association, said that even with the additional money the programme will still have a lower budget than in Horizon 2020. For 2020, MSCA had a budget of around €1 billion, while the proposed budget for 2021, in the first year of Horizon Europe, is €778 million. The proposed €200 million for the next seven years is "too little for the MSCA programme,” Shawrav told Science|Business.

A few countries also defended the EIC, with Spain urging that the 2 per cent cut agreed today should be the last reduction to its budget, while Ireland asked the German presidency to keep its promise to safeguard grant money for the EIC Accelerator, a pilot programme to help researchers and SMEs advance their ideas to market.

Croatia wanted more money for the European Research Council, while Portugal and Spain would like the see fundamental research under Horizon Europe strengthened via synergies with EU structural funds.

Closing outstanding issues

Last week, permanent EU representatives of member states governments met to iron out the final details of Horizon Europe ahead of the research ministers meeting.

Two outstanding issues were settled by the EU ambassadors. First, member states will be able to use EU structural funds to fund industrial research partnerships. Second, Horizon Europe should follow “a very flexible approach” to spending the top-up from the recovery fund, according to a senior EU diplomat.

The recovery fund for research could be spent on projects that address the health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “Our flexibility approach implies that, in theory, all parts of the programme can contribute to overcoming the effects of this pandemic,” the diplomat said.

This flexibility could offer a lifeline to the European Research Council (ERC), which lost more than 15 per cent of its budget in the July summit. ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon said some of the cuts to the ERC budget could be reversed if MEPs could come to an agreement with the council that the parts of Horizon Europe that are in line for extra support from the recovery fund get a smaller share of the long-term budget. That would compensate for major cuts made to the ERC and other fundamental research funding.

However, according to other sources close to the budget negotiations between member states, the recovery fund money will remain earmarked for predefined areas in health and economic recovery.

One other option, proposed by MEPs in the budgets committee, is that Horizon Europe could be topped up with money raised by new taxes levied by the EU, an approach Bourguignon believes could also boost the ERC’s budget.

Opening up Horizon Europe

Ministers also agreed on the rules for non-EU countries to participate in Horizon Europe, including a new provision intended to protect Europe’s technology sovereignty. The provision will limit the participation of legal entities established in the EU, or in associated countries, if the commission and member states find “justified and exceptional reasons,” the senior diplomat said.

Karliczech said the provision guarantees a good balance between openness and need for protection of strategic European interests.

“We mustn’t be naïve,” said Gabriel. “[Horizon Europe] is open but it shouldn’t be vulnerable.”

The commission could start negotiations with individual countries in 2021 at the earliest, and will have to consult with the council before making any decision.

Parliament’s turn

Now the parliament will have the final word on Horizon Europe and its budget.

Gabriel urged MEPs to “face up with reality” and recognise the main priority is to get the programme running in January. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” she said.   

“We have now paved the way for embarking on the final stretch,” said Karliczek. “I sincerely believe that we have achieved a fair and balanced compromise.”

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