A messier Parliament, and an uncertain future for Horizon Europe

27 May 2019 | News

Post-election politics could re-shape the EU’s R&D programme – but the maths are messy. ‘Technology not always the answer’, says Green MEP

Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer envisions faster progress on renewable energy targets, but also more focus on biodiversity and the sustainability of agriculture. Photo: European Parliament

In the aftermath of the European elections, the calculators are starting to come out in labs and universities around Europe that depend on the EU for research funding: Will it mean more or less money for science and technology? The answer so far: fuzzy maths.

In one column, prominent figures in the research community say some gains by nationalists and eurosceptics could make it harder to get approval for a big budget rise for Horizon Europe, the next EU R&D programme. In the other column, some speculate that the “Green Wave” will counteract that, or at least build momentum for ploughing even more than the €33 billion currently targeted for climate support in the draft, seven-year Horizon Europe legislation.

Here’s one analysis: “While the Green fraction might insist on a re-allocation of funds in favour of climate change, the right wing groups will be fiercely opposed to this, because for some of them, climate change is a hoax. These two fractions will certainly also clash over the role of social science and humanities,” argues Robert-Jan Smits, president of the Eindhoven University of Technology and former director-general of research at the European Commission.

And yet another theory holds that the right, which increased its share in the European Parliament, will unite to block non-EU members from sharing in many benefits of Horizon.

Confused? Join the crowd: to many, the electoral results appear so complex that it’s hard to make any firm forecasts. Going into the calculation: The basic arithmetic of the centre-right and centre-left parties – long key backers of EU R&D spending – which lost their joint Parliamentary majority for the first time ever. At the same time, however, the generally pro-R&D liberal parties surged, as did the Greens and the several rightist and Eurosceptic parties in various member states.

Further complication: quite apart from the electoral math, it’s also a fact that some of the key legislators for Horizon Europe were safely returned to their seats, where they are likely to keep steering the action for this package. They include former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, now chair of the key committee for Horizon, and the two rapporteurs, Germany’s Christian Ehler and Romania’s Dan Nica. And the new crop of MEPs also includes some strong R&D supporters.

Uncertainty ahead

So, taken together, all these factors point to a prolonged period of uncertainty – exactly what the Commission and Horizon backers want to avoid, as they are rushing to get all the legislation finished within the next year.

Before the last Parliament dissolved in April, negotiators signed off on the general outlines of the bloc’s new research programme, Horizon Europe, which runs from 2021 to 2027. But still to be agreed is the money: €94.1 billion as proposed by the Commission, €120 billion as voted by the last Parliament, or something closer to the old programme, €77 billion.

In the legislation so far, “the missing part, of course, is the budget,” observes Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, and professor emerita of science and technology studies at ETH Zurich.  

With more of a voice in Parliament, the rightists could call try to divert budget away from research towards issues like controlling immigration. Parliament could also reapportion funding within the programme.

Smits hopes that the outline text for Horizon Europe will be adopted by the new Parliament as it stands and that “everything will be done to avoid the opening of Pandora’s box.” He says the re-elected Ehler will have a big role in shoring up support in Parliament. “He has shown in the past that he can align political fractions and get things done,” Smits says.

Despite the new, uneven seat topography, and a sharp rise in support for nationalist parties in Italy and France, Parliament maths still favour the pro-EU groups overall. Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, thinks there is enough centrist support to ensure “bread-and-butter research policies” would continue as before.

And Nowotny says she expects the new Parliament, like those before it, will demand a higher budget for research than member states – the historical pattern in this legislation.

Global vision under threat

Less certain is whether Parliament may seek to frustrate the Commission’s efforts to further open Horizon Europe to distant non-EU partners, such as Canada or Japan.

“While the Liberal fraction will support the proposed ‘openness‘, the right wing fraction will certainly call for a ‘fortress Europe’ approach,” says Smits. The previous Parliament tackled this question too, with a minority of members calling for a ‘Europe First’ mentality for EU research.

Jørgensen expects the issue of whether to collaborate or compete with China, in particular, will continue to be a divisive question. 

“I would not be surprised either to see some on the extreme right argue for stronger European innovation to fight US dominance,” Jørgensen adds.

Gains for nationalist groups, however, “should not prevent voices in the new Parliament from speaking out for an overall framework that is favourable to the kind of research that makes Europe strong: open, focused on quality and not afraid of collaborating and competing globally,” says Stephan Kuster, secretary-general of Brussels-based Science Europe, an advocacy group for research-funding organisations.

“There are enough such voices and our strategy remains to work with them and create majorities around what is good for knowledge creation and evidence based policies in Europe,” he added.

More power for greens, liberals

Another imponderable is the Green effect. Some see it as a boost for Horizon Europe.

“Given the commitment to invest 35 per cent of its budget in climate-friendly technologies, I would expect strong support from the Greens,” says Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.  

At a Politico conference 27 May, leading Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer predicted fast action ahead. With a stronger voice in Parliament, Bütikofer said he envisions faster progress on renewable energy targets, but also more focus on biodiversity and the sustainability of agriculture. But, though a member of the committee handling Horizon, he declined to comment when asked by Science|Business how the new constellation in the Parliament would influence the next EU budget.

The Commission strategy so far – to boost science funding, while cutting agriculture and regional funding – could become a major source of discord in Europe. To mitigate the expected fallout from a cut to the farm budget, EU Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger has proposed €10 billion for research and innovation for food, agriculture, ocean and bioeconomy inside Horizon.

But Bütikofer said he is not convinced this proposal will satisfy governments, or whether it will help make agriculture systems sustainable. “Technology is not always the answer,” he said.

Indeed, many analysts find the Green Wave hard to measure. Green MEPs can be “supportive but also an obstacle in research,” says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Universities. The Green group is sensitive to, and frequently challenges, the use of animals in research and adoption of new agricultural research methods, he says.

Green support would require “giving greater weight to issues like climate change, food security – but not with big agribusiness involvement – and tighter regulation for fertilizers,” says Nowotny.

And independent MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel, a committee vice-chair who didn’t stand for re-election, predicts “the success of the Greens will make the other [groups] greener too". But he warns that the group’s policies needed more scrutiny. “We should have the guts to look at the recipes more closely which the Greens prescribe and educate the rest of the public about their simplicities,” Henkel says.

“The progress of the Greens will in my view be detrimental [to research],” he adds. The Greens’ stance on food production, for example, would set the world back, he says. “When it gets to food production, they say we should not alter genes. [They say] we should not allow that because there could be these monster tomatoes which would rather eat us up [while] totally ignoring the fact that we are soon having more than 10 billion people in the world which need to be fed and nobody has yet a solution for that,” he added.

Yet another Green impact could be indirect. By putting greater emphasis on climate and environmental “missions” inside Horizon Europe, it could actually squeeze out other kinds of funding such as other areas of basic research, Jørgensen of EUA speculates.

The combination of (Commission officials) looking for more direction for EU research and a stronger Green party that wants to combat climate change and promote green tech could be a challenge for those that argue for giving basic research a priority,” he says.  

It is, of course, going to be several weeks at the very least before any of this fog clears. The new Parliament isn’t due to meet formally until 2 July, and then a new Commission is due to take office 1 November. In that time, the politicking is likely to be fierce – and slow, many say.

For instance, the surging nationalists in Italy and Hungary are likely to put forward “controversial candidates” to the top jobs opening up in Brussels, says Alberto Alemanno, law professor at the HEC Paris Business School. Though they aren’t powerful enough to get their way, he says, they could certainly “slow down the formation of next Commission.”

Florin Zubașcu and Nicholas Wallace contributed to this article.

This article was updated on 28 May 2019 to correct an error. Jan Palmowski is the secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, not the League of European Research Universities, whose secretary general is Kurt Deketelaere. 

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