MEPs give the nod on Horizon Europe and space and digital programmes in their last meeting before the May elections. But it will be down to the new crop of MEPs to negotiate the budget
STRASBOURG – In its final meeting before the May elections, the European Parliament on 17 April approved a string of deals with European governments, allowing preparatory work to begin on four science and technology programmes.
However, none of the programmes are really confirmed because key details, particularly their budgets, are still to be agreed.
The European Commission has proposed a total budget of €161.6 billion for the four programmes: €94.1 billion for R&D in Horizon Europe; €16 billion for space; €9.2 billion to boost Europe’s digital capabilities in the Digital Europe programme; and €42.3 billion for the Connecting Europe infrastructure programme, of which €3 billion would be spent on digital infrastructure.
While the votes allow the Commission to start laying the ground for these programmes to begin on time in January 2021, the budgets will be negotiated by a new crop of MEPs, whose attitudes to public funding of research remain to be tested. Adding to the uncertainty, each member state has power of veto on the budget.
There is some distance between the Commission’s proposed €94.1 billion for Horizon Europe and the €120 billion the Parliament wants to see invested in the programme, but assuming the budget is finalised in time, from 1 January 2021 Horizon Europe will boost R&D in areas including climate research, security, healthcare and other sectors. It will also put in place new types of financial support, such as equity investment, for tech start-ups and ‘disruptive’ innovation. The EU Council approved the deal on 15 April.
The outline agreement on Horizon Europe, struck in March and now approved by the Parliament, clarifies major aspects of the programme, such as the themes for the large scale missions, which will focus on particular problems, such as cancer and plastics pollution, and on the themes for industry partnerships.
The space programme, meanwhile, will establish a new EU agency in Prague to coordinate the EU’s contribution to projects jointly run with the European Space Agency. Digital Europe aims to boost Europe’s capabilities in supercomputing, artificial intelligence, cyber security, digital skills, and digital transformation. Connecting Europe is an infrastructure programme focused largely on transport, in addition to energy and digital.
The agreements do not include any details of how the four programmes will work together, nor the participation rules for non-EU countries, including the UK after Brexit. All that will be negotiated as part of the EU’s seven-year budget for 2021-2027, over which every EU country has a veto.
Russian science cooperation
In addition, the Parliament voted to renew the science and technology cooperation agreement with Russia, originally signed in 2000, but currently rather battered as a result of the poor relations between Russia and the EU. The final decision on extending the agreement for a further five years lies with the Council, which has the sole right to decide the matter, in consultation with the Parliament.
The outline agreement on Horizon Europe allocates 35 per cent of the eventual budget to addressing climate change. That will make it, “the biggest climate change project in the world,” said Christian Ehler MEP, one of Horizon Europe’s two rapporteurs.
There was an air of satisfaction that while it took eighteen months to negotiate Horizon 2020, the Horizon Europe negotiations between the Parliament, the Commission and the Romanian presidency of the EU Council took just a few months.
“We in three months were able to agree on, I would say, 90 per cent of the content,” said research commissioner Carlos Moedas, in an interview on 16 April. “I see that as a big achievement.”
During the parliamentary debate before the vote, Lieve Wierinck, a Belgian liberal MEP, said negotiators had “achieved the impossible” in securing a deal so quickly.
European elections will shape the outcome of Horizon Europe
There are other lose ends to be tied up. After the elections, the Parliament’s legal affairs committee, JURI will have to vote on a change to how Horizon Europe is rooted in the EU treaties, because there was no time to do this before the final plenary.
The alteration, demanded by the Council, sees Parliament give up its formal control over some parts of Horizon Europe in exchange for other concessions. Technically, the newly-elected MEPs could reject the change, but that is unlikely. If they did, the Council could refer the matter to the European Court of Justice.
A more realistic concern is that the next Parliament might take a different view on Horizon Europe funding. If voters return a Parliament that is less enthusiastic about spending public money on big EU projects, the next cohort of MEPs could argue for a smaller budget.
On the other hand, there could be a demand for more money. Reinhard Bütikofer, a German Green MEP, for example, said in an interview that he intends to fight for an even bigger research budget, of €160 billion, if re-elected in May.
Also in the mix is the member state veto. With national governments currently deadlocked over the budget, the Commission pushed back its deadline for concluding negotiations from May to October, when the Commission’s term ends.
At about the same time the European Court of Auditors is expected to publish a report on whether Horizon 2020’s support for small and medium-sized enterprises provides value for money. The SME instrument, which provides grants to start-ups is to be absorbed into the European Innovation Council. Besides awarding grants, the EIC will also invest in start-ups.
Disappointment in Eastern Europe
During the debate on 16 April, Zdzław Krasnodębski of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party lamented that “widening” measures in Horizon Europe designed to support poorer member states, did not go further. “I liked the Parliament’s original position better,” said Krasnodębski, a sociology professor at the University of Bremen in northwest Germany.
Widening aims to improve the performance of research institutions in poorer member states, such as by enabling them to partner with better-funded counterparts in wealthier countries. As things stand, 3.3 per cent of the Horizon Europe budget is reserved for widening, compared to about 1 per cent in Horizon 2020.
Parliament’s original position on Horizon Europe was that researchers in widening countries would be paid an additional 25 per cent on top of all personnel costs funded through the programme, but that did not survive the negotiations.
The second Horizon Europe rapporteur, Dan Nica, a Romanian social democrat, who supported the wage subsidies, is disappointed the proposal was dropped. Researchers in Eastern Europe are generally paid less than those in wealthier countries. “I think the principle of equal pay for equal work just cannot be denied,” Nica said in an interview.