12 Dec 2018   |   News

European Parliament backs bigger €120B EU research budget

MEPs give formal backing to Commission’s next big research programme – and want to spend more than the €94.1B already proposed. Several members states oppose that, setting scene for at least another year of wrangling

STRASBOURG - The European Parliament gave its formal stamp of approval to the EU’s next big research programme, Horizon Europe – moving forward legislation for it and calling for a €120 billion budget, a 27.5 per cent increase on the €94.1 billion proposed by the European Commission

The vote 12 December, following a lockdown of the Parliament after a terrorist attack here, was a necessary milestone on the road to starting the new programme in 2021. But several member states, led by the Netherlands, have already come out against the kind of big budget rise that the Parliament espoused – so the vote sets the scene for what’s likely to be at least another year of arguing among the Parliament, Council and Commission.

Nevertheless, Dan Nica, a Parliamentary rapporteur for one of the two draft laws establishing Horizon Europe, says he thinks member states will come around. "I think the chances are definitely good," he said, when asked how likely he thought the Council is to approve a larger research budget.

"The ultimate goal, including among the member states, is to reduce the gap when it comes to research and innovation between the US and the European Union," said Nica, a member of Romania's governing Social Democratic party.

Wednesday's vote followed a subdued debate late on Tuesday night, which took place behind locked doors due to the terrorist attack at the nearby Christmas market. Nobody, including MEPs, was allowed to leave the building.

While a few MEPs wanted to stop the debate, Italy’s Antonio Taijani and Poland’s Zdizław Krasnodębski argued it would be wrong to let terrorists stop a democratic debate, and most members present seemed to agree. On Wednesday, most of those who had been locked in until the early hours of the morning looked tired, but unperturbed.

Horizon Europe is the successor programme to Horizon 2020, the EU's eighth consecutive multi-year funding programme for research and innovation. Horizon Europe will run from 2021 to 2027, and was first proposed by the Commission in June. 

‘We failed’ to hit R&I targets

The other rapporteur for Horizon Europe is Christian Ehler, an MEP for Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He said he "can't imagine" that member states that are net contributors to the EU budget, like Germany, would accept a larger EU budget unless more of it goes to research. The Commission’s overall budget plan for the 2020s calls for cuts in agriculture and development spending, to make more room for research, defence and other priorities. 

Ehler argued that while "Germany might not throw money in a black hole," increased R&I spending might give the idea of a larger budget more "plausibility." The CDU is the larger partner in the "grand coalition" running the German federal government, and is part of the European People's Party (EPP). 

"The other thing is that, in Catholic terms, it's payoff time," said Ehler, a former Catholic. He was referring to prior commitments to raise total public and private R&D spending in the EU to 3 per cent of GDP by 2020, but recent figures published by Eurostat, the Commission's official statistics service, shows most member states are nowhere near that target. The EU average in 2017 was 2.07 per cent.  

"We failed," said Ehler. "In China, the average is somewhere between three and five per cent, in the United States it's substantially beyond three per cent, and the question with that budget is really, 'do we want to fix the problem?' Do we have an attempt to be competitive in global terms, or not?" He acknowledged that even a Horizon budget of €120 billion would not hit the target, but he said it would be "a game changer." 

‘They will not get that money’ 

Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German independent who is a vice chair of the research committee and who sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists, says he supports the idea of a larger research budget, but thinks member states will never accept it. "They will not get that money," said Henkel in an interview here.  Nevertheless, he said he thinks the vote "underscores" the importance of research. 

Henkel thinks the solution is to put more pressure on member states to increase their own R&D budgets. "I am in favour of spending as much for R&D as possible. Certainly at least for each country to reach its 3 per cent goal," he said, "the focus of the European Union should be to lean on those countries which fall behind, making sure that they make their 3 per cent target." Henkel is a former IBM executive and ex-head of Germany’s Leibniz research association.

How much money ultimately goes to Horizon Europe will depend on what happens in Council negotiations over the long-term budget for the EU as a whole, called the Multiannual Financial Framework, or MFF. The Commission had hoped that the MFF would be agreed by the EU summit in Sibiu, Romania, on 9 May 2019, but on 4 December it pushed that deadline back to next October.

In principle, the only criteria for winning grants under Horizon Europe will be scientific "excellence," meaning the quality of the research project. But MEPs amended the legislation to dedicate more money for "spreading excellence and widening." In practice, that means spending more money in poorer member states, the rationale being that "excellence" favours rich countries that can invest a lot in R&D.

‘Innovation principle’

The only new amendments were minor changes to sections dealing with health research.

The rest of the amendments had already been agreed in late November by the research committee, ITRE. However, some MEPs wanted to make last-minute changes.

A group including Portuguese MEP Marisa Matias tried and failed to remove references in the legislation to an "innovation principle." On Tuesday night, Matias, who represents Portugal's Left Bloc in the Party of the European Left, complained that "nobody really knows what it is."

EU law often defers to a "precautionary principle," which basically means policymakers assume the worst when regulating in uncertain situations. In the EU treaties, the doctrine only applies to environmental protection, though EU policymakers have more recently applied it in other areas, such as data protection. Parliament's version of Horizon Europe invokes "the innovation principle" instead.

Speaking during the Parliamentary debate, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, a Portuguese social democrat, retorted that "we need an innovation principle as we need a precautionary principle. Both are complementary, and both are important for Europe," said Moedas. "If you want to have rules that are future proof, you really need to think about innovation, because technology changes every day, so the innovation principle is about helping us future proofing our rules."

Ehler said in an interview after the vote that "the problem had been that we had so many discussions up front on what could be the potential harm of a technology, where we weren't actually in the phase of implementing the technology," he said. He said the innovation principle, however defined, was born of a desire "to make sure that we don't limit innovation in the first phase, it should be really open science." He dismissed claims that the innovation principle was the result of industry lobbying.

Still no Brexit clarity

Other MEPs wanted to guarantee that UK scientists would still be able to participate in EU-funded research, but their amendment fell. Neither the Commission's text nor the one adopted by Parliament mentions the UK or Brexit at all. Czech MEP Evžen Tošenovský, of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, said before the vote that, "I'm not happy about the unclear status of the UK, because Brits have been and will be leaders in science at the highest level globally."

In a press conference 11 December, Nica said that Brexit was a matter to be settled between the UK and the European Commission, not in the Horizon legislation. He said that for the purposes of the Horizon Europe report, "the UK was treated, as it is today, as a member state.” He added, "if the Brexit happens — which I hope not — the UK will have to negotiate" access to Horizon Europe as a third country.

Henkel sees it differently. "I think it is masochistic of the European Parliament to refuse them [the British]." Henkel believes it is in the EU's interests to keep the UK involved. "Europe needs Britain at least as much as Britain needs Europe," he said, "especially in the field of technology, science, and so on."

Henkel also believes Parliament's stance on UK participation is inconsistent with its approach to other countries. "Horizon 2020 is treating Switzerland as if Switzerland was in the EU, and Switzerland isn't even in the EU. As a matter of fact, we are even treating Israel, which is not even part of Europe, as if it was in the EU. But the current approach on Brexit is to treat Britain worse than these two." He believes this can only be explained by a desire among some in the EU to "punish" the UK for its referendum.

Too much bureaucracy

The legislation adopted by Parliament does not cover the precise terms for grant applications under Horizon Europe; that will come later from the Commission. The current rules have been criticised for being too bureaucratic, and Nica is concerned that the next set could be even worse.

"We [the rapporteurs] are not very pleased with the rumours that the tender documents for future calls under Horizon Europe are even larger than the ones under Horizon 2020," said Nica. "Someone told me — it's not yet confirmed, but someone mentioned — [that it was] 700 pages. Which is a good increase from the 350 under Horizon Europe."

Farming cuts a ‘big problem’

Though broadly supportive of the drafts prepared by Nica and Ehler, Séan Kelly, an Irish EPP member representing Fine Gael, wanted more money for agricultural research than the research committee had backed in November. "I do have one slight problem. It's more than a slight problem. It’s a big problem and that is the proportionate cut in terms of agriculture, food and natural resources from the Commission's 10.6 per cent (of the Horizon Europe budget) to 9 per cent, at a time when there are huge challenges for the agricultural sector in meeting the needs of food security and emissions reduction in line with the Paris agreement."

Some saw the Commission’s commitments to agricultural research as a means of compensating those upset by cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy, the biggest single item in the overall EU budget. Thomas Esterman, director of governance, funding and policy research at the European University Association, said “You can see already in the Commission proposal that they had tried to, well, make some concessions by saying ‘ok we’ll reduce the cohesion funding, but we’ll dedicate a special amount of money for research that goes to agriculture.’”

Laying out her thoughts on the legislation, Matias quipped, "A compromise is a compromise is a compromise, and what we have here is a compromise."

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