The European Parliament last week laid claim to the powers it acquired under the Lisbon Treaty, rejecting the austerity-era budget proposed by EU leaders. The resulting stalemate could take months to resolve, and interest groups are now bracing themselves for a fresh round of lobbying in favour of the proposed €80 billion budget for the Horizon 2020 R&D programme.
“Lobbying now is just as important as it was before the Council agreement in February,” the Head of Policy Affairs at Science Europe, Stephan Kuster said. “Science Europe will continue to stress the need for adequate funding at meetings and events across Europe,” he told Science|Business.
Business Europe too, is renewing its efforts, and will soon send out a letter to all trilogue participants.
Meanwhile, The League of European Research Universities (LERU) is taking a direct approach, making direct contact with rapporteur MEPs and national science ministers.
Underlining that now is not the time for lobbyists to take their foot off the gas, Michael Jennings, spokesman for Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, told Science|Buisness, “We are entering the key phase of the budget negotiations.”
Restoring €80 billion budget
All of which begs the question of what these groups hope to achieve through their renewed lobbying. A common concern is to protect, if not enhance, the €70.96 billion approved by Council for the Horizon 2020 programme, with Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General at LERU saying, “I am hopeful that the Parliament’s resolution will lead to an increase in the budget for Horizon 2020, and even see it restored to the proposed €80 billion."
Science Europe has chosen to take a consistent, yet persistent, approach. “We will hold onto our original position, as stated in November 2012, that €80 billion is the minimum figure required by Horizon 2020 to fulfil its goals of building a knowledge economy and enabling Europe to be competitive worldwide", said Kuster.
Business Europe will also continue to endorse the €80 billion figure, but plans to make the case that if a reduction is necessary, “It should be a balanced reduction across the three pillars of Horizon 2020,” said Bruno Pedrotti, an advisor to the group.
EARTO is taking a more pessimistic view, putting out at statement after the European Parliament vote saying, “The budget for Horizon 2020 will be reduced to around €70 billion, despite all the good words from the institutions."
Jennings refused to be drawn on what the likely outcome is, saying, "We are at a moment in the process where we cannot speculate too much."
MEPs however, have not given up hope of pushing the budget back up towards €80 billion following the vote last week to reject the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF). Maria Da Graça Carvalho MEP, former Portuguese Science Minister, who is one of the key rapporteurs on Horizon 2020, acknowledges it is unlikely the Council will start to unpick the difficult compromises reached in the contentious big-budget areas like the Common Agricultural Policy. But she says, “There may still be flexibility for negotiating the [Horizon 2020] budget within Heading 1a of Competitiveness for Growth and Jobs.”
By devoting one clause of its resolution to the importance of substantially increasing investment in innovation, research and development, the Parliament has clearly made research a priority, Carvalho noted.
If there is still room for manoeuvre on Horizon 2020's budget, then Science Europe would like to see it used to support basic research. “It is easy in a crisis economy to prioritise quick fix innovative gains,” said Kuster. “While innovation is of course important, basic research across all disciplines is needed to ensure sustainable growth in Europe.”
Business Europe is keen to see the new rules for reimbursement, designed to ensure adequate funding for the activities of large companies and SMEs, remain part of the Horizon 2020 package. “We do not want to see the institutions agreeing on the lowest common denominator of a flat rate payment below the level in Framework Programme 7,” Pedrotti said.
A common thread running through all interest groups is the call for timely implementation of the programme. The good news here is that the Parliament neither rejected the overall cut in the budget nor the proposed distribution of funds. This means that the original agreement reached by the Council – although shaken - remains intact - and a timely agreement between the institutions is possible.
The Irish Presidency has been left to finesse the impasse, but is satisfied negotiations are still on track, according to spokeswoman Marcella Smyth. All of the Institutions have indicated an intention to reach a first reading agreement before the Presidency ends in June.
There’s certainly a strong preference for reaching a full agreement before the end of the year, avoiding a roll-over, in which the EU would be funded month-by- month under the existing MFF ceilings.
This would initially result in greater funding for research than the Council's €70.96 billion budget for Horizon 2020, because the FP7 programme has grown to €11 billion this year. But the uncertainty it would generate would make planning of long-term projects very difficult, so no one is hoping for that.
A timely agreement on the MFF would also allow for an informed decision to be made on arrangements within the Horizon 2020 package. All non-budget related elements are under negotiation with the Parliament at present, including the Framework Regulation, the Rules for Participation Regulation and two European Institute of Innovation and Technology files.
LERU, however, is adamant it does not want the details of Horizon 2020 to be cast in iron before the MFF is agreed upon. “How can we approve a programme without knowing what its budget will be?" asks Deketelaere.
As the Parliament sits down to negotiate, it would appear to be bringing the interests of the innovation community with it. “The resolution represents the Parliament’s mandate for negotiation,” Carvahlo said.
Parliament’s wish list
At the top of the Parliament’s agenda is the fulfilment of all unpaid payment claims for 2012. The aim is to begin the 2014 - 2020 funding programme with a clean slate and with all outstanding bills paid. Payment shortfalls last year meant that programmes including Erasmus, were left with insufficient funds.
Another key parliamentary priority is budgetary flexibility, so that any funds left unspent in one programme can be re-assigned to another.
The Parliament also wants to institute a review procedure, whereby the allocation of funds within the budget could be reconsidered over the seven year programme. If the economic climate changes, it would be in the research industry's interest that budgets can be reviewed and more money freed up for innovation.
In summary, the EU stands at an important juncture of the negotiation process, where each of the institutions has laid its cards on the table. The big question is how much flexibility really remains at Council level, and how willing it will be to change the figures. With the bailout for Cyprus dominating last week’s summit, it may be that EU leaders will prefer to hold tight to the delicate agreement on MFF that it took them so long to reach.