Next research programme can start on time, and MEPs also manage to claw back money for health and student exchanges. But there’s disappointment they didn’t salvage more
EU governments and the European Parliament on Tuesday afternoon announced an extra €4 billion will be added to the EU’s 2021-2027 research budget, following one-and-a-half days of intense negotiations in Brussels.
The deal, which still requires a final nod from parliament and member states, puts Brussels closer to implementing its gigantic €1.8 trillion budget and COVID-19 recovery package.
In all, a series of EU programmes gained an additional €15 billion. Among them, the student exchange programme Erasmus+ went up by €2.2 billion, health spending in EU4Health by €3.4 billion, and the InvestEU programme got an additional €1 billion.
“The European Parliament tripled the envelope of the health programme, secured the equivalent of an additional year of financing for Erasmus+ to support the young generation, and we ensured that research funding remains increasing in key areas, like digital, climate and health,” said Johan Van Overtveldt, a Belgian MEP who sits on the budget committee.
Of the reclaimed €15 billion, €12.5 billion is fresh funding, primarily from competition fines imposed by Brussels. The remaining money comes from reallocated funds, according to the EU Council, which represents the 27 EU governments.
Parliamentarians have been fighting to reverse cuts made to science and other investment programmes since July, when EU leaders settled on €80.9 billion (at 2018 prices) for Horizon Europe, significantly less than €94.4 billion proposed by the European Commission.
“I am really proud that we fought – all six of us as a team,” said van Overtveldt, pointing to the other budget MEPs who headed talks with the German Presidency of the Council. “You can take the term ‘fight’ literally. We had to fight for what we got.”
“We are all very proud of what we achieved, not for the parliament’s pride but in the interest of European citizens short-term and long-term,” van Overveldt said.
One of the most visible campaigners for science in the Parliament, MEP Christian Ehler, spokesman on Horizon Europe for the European Peoples’ Party, called the deal “a victory for researchers, scientists and citizens alike.”
Ehler called it “a very tough fight” but he said the amount restored to Horizon Europe "compensates to some extent for the cuts pushed so hard by the EU member states.”
The challenge now for negotiators will be to figure out how to divide extra funds within Horizon Europe fairly, with officials attached to public-private partnerships, the European Research Council, the new research missions, and the European Innovation Council all baying for more cash.
Researchers will be happy to see more money for science, but there was also disappointment that MEPs didn’t get more.
“When assessed against what could realistically be achieved at a time of worsening public finance, we should welcome this outcome and we should really acknowledge the really active work of [MEPs] Christian Ehler, Cristian-Silviu Busoi and colleagues in the CULT and ENVI committees, to ensure that parliament focused on these areas,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Brussels-based Guild of European Research Universities. “And now the new programmes can start in a timely way.”
Palmowski added that parliament “had a weak hand constitutionally, and it used it very strategically and well, focusing on what really mattered.”
In the view of Robert-Jan Smits, former director-general of the European Commission’s research and innovation directorate and president of Eindhoven University of Technology, the programme “deserves more.”
“Well, it’s a bit more, but of course it doesn’t come close to the €100 billion the European Commission originally proposed and the €120 billion the European Parliament had asked for. So yes, I am disappointed, very disappointed,” he said.
Another disappointed figure was Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. He said the top-up was “symbolic, after the massive cuts done by EU member states.”
“On World Science Day, the EU concludes a bad budget deal for research, innovation and education for the next seven years. Cynical,” Deketelaere tweeted.
In a sign of increasing pressure on negotiators to come up with a better deal for research, “Rescue Horizon Europe” was a rallying call on Twitter on Monday, with researchers venting their frustration over the proposed cuts.
“I wonder what would happen if all scientists in Europe would put down their work for 24 [hours] during the pandemic (including the ones working on vaccines and testing) to signal that current plans for science funding by the EU Council [are] an active threat to our future?” tweeted Carlos Ribeiro, a neuroscientist at the Champalimaud Foundation in Portugal.