As EU leaders put off a final decision on the 2021-2027 spending plans to summit in July, the clamour for more research funding intensifies. Now the research commissioner is adding her voice
EU commissioner for research and innovation Mariya Gabriel is backing a renewed call for a strong Horizon Europe budget, joining a cross party group of MEPs in a statement asking EU leaders to put R&D funding at the core of EU’s pandemic recovery plan.
“If we are to reach the potential target of 50 per cent reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030, which is of transformative nature for all industrial sectors in Europe, we will need coordinated efforts and a strong Horizon Europe,” says the statement posted by Gabriel on Twitter.
Sources in the commission say Gabriel decided to sign the statement in order to express her support for a strong research programme in the EU’s next multiannual budget.
The budget proposal published by the commission on 27 May foresees a €94.4 billion (in 2018 prices) budget for Horizon Europe. That includes a cash injection of €13.5 billion from the Next Generation Fund, a new €750 billion fund intended to top up the 2021 - 2027 multiannual budget, in an attempt to offset the economic impact of the pandemic.
Speaking in the European Parliament on Wednesday, commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the recovery fund will go beyond a usual economic rescue package. “It is a boost for science, innovative research and investment in the technologies of the future,” she said.
The MEPs who signed the statement come from parties across the political spectrum and include the two rapporteurs on Horizon Europe, Christian Ehler (EPP) and Dan Nica (S&D), along with Maria da Graça Carvalho (S&D), Tom Berendsen (EPP), Pascal Arimont (EPP), Maria Spyraki (EPP), Lefteris Christoforou (EPP), Martina Dlabajova (Renew), Patrizia Toia (S&D), Lina Galvez Muñoz (S&D), Ville Niinisto (Greens), and Iskra Mihaylova (Renew).
The release of the statement caused some confusion. An incorrect version was at first distributed to journalists, which included the commissioner’s support to the European Parliament’s call for a Horizon Europe budget of at least €120 billion.
That reference has been taken out in the final version, as it appeared to put Gabriel at odds with the official position of the commission.
A budget deal, while needed soon, it is still being worked out among EU leaders. After a videoconference with heads of state on Friday, EU council president Charles Michel said there is an “emerging consensus” but he does not “underestimate” the difficulties ahead.
Michel is now expected to put forward a revised version of the commission’s budget and recovery plans and call for another summit in July. “We will try to accelerate the negotiations,” Michel said.
The recovery dilemma
The recovery fund is partly to be raised from taxes on carbon emissions and on technology multinationals operating in Europe, and partly borrowed from financial markets.
MEPs generally agree that time is pressing. Governments and member states should act fast get a budget deal over the finishing line as soon as possible. But there is disagreement over the approach.
The leader of the parliament’s Renew group, Dacian Cioloș, said the commission’s budget proposal is much weaker than expected, considering Europe’s newfound need to build “strategic and economic autonomy” after the crisis exposed economic and medical vulnerabilities. “The recovery plan is not enough to offset the weakness of [the budget proposal],” Cioloș said.
In February, during the last budget summit, leaders were divided across two major fault lines. A group of countries saw the need to raise the national contribution to the EU budget, while a group of ‘frugal’ countries opposed the idea. At the same time, member states could not agree on the main spending priorities in the budget, with some advocating for increased investment in green and digital technologies, while others wanted to safeguard allocations for agriculture and regional development.
The pandemic and the commission’s proposed recovery fund have added yet another concern to the mix. Frugal member states are adamant the EU should not fund a recovery plan by creating a common debt. They also disagree with the money being dispensed as grants rather than loans.
According to Cioloș, EU leaders can either negotiate from hard-line national positions or accept that the difficult times ahead require a compromise.
German Green MEP Ska Keller made a plea to “imagine if, for once, governments would ditch the drama” and compromise on a bold budget.
Research stakeholders take notice
The Coimbra group, a European university lobby association, has called on EU policy makers to strengthen investments in education and research in the EU’s recovery package.
This view was echoed by the European University Association, Europe’s largest university lobby group, which says the proposed Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ budgets are insufficient to address the EU’s recovery needs.
Science Europe, the association representing Europe’s major public research funding agencies, says EU leaders should reconsider the European Commission’s budget proposal for Horizon Europe, as it could be “seriously damaging” for parts of the programme focused on basic research and research mobility.
According to the commission’s budget proposal released in May, most Horizon Europe programmes would lose 3.2 per cent of their budget. Meanwhile, the commission proposed to give a €13.5 billion boost from its pandemic recovery fund to the European Innovation Council and applied research in health, digital and climate.
Science Europe says the plan should be reconsidered, so that the recovery money also reaches the coffers of the European Research Council, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and research infrastructures.
Next week, the commission will propose the annual EU budget for 2021, but MEPs have already warned it will be very difficult to make a decision on it if EU leaders cannot agree on the 2021 – 2027 long-term budget in due time.
The parliament budgets committee will once more discuss the multiannual budget on Monday, while on Wednesday it will hear from EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn, who will present the proposal for 2021.
EU leaders are expected to meet again in July for another budget summit in the hope a deal could be reached before the summer holidays.
Editor’s note: This story was updated 21 June to compare both versions of the joint statement by MEPs and commissioner Gabriel.