At confirmation hearings, Johannes Hahn told MEPs a ‘compromise’ on agriculture and cohesion is needed to divert funds to research, while proposed new head of energy, Kadri Simson said the EU will not meet carbon targets unless it invests more in R&I
Throughout a week of parliamentary hearings, candidates for EU’s top jobs have pledged increased support for research and innovation at the expense of other programmes such as cohesion and agriculture, in a show of the collective commitment to shift political priorities in Brussels.
Prospective commissioner for budget, Austria’s Johannes Hahn told MEPs the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-27 must reflect the change in investment priorities, and more funds will need to be allocated to research at the expense of cohesion and agriculture budgets. “We need to modernise the [multiannual financial framework] and we need to make compromises,” Hahn said during his confirmation hearing in the parliament on Thursday.
“If we want to spend more for research, for neighbourhood policy and for trying to strengthen Europe, then we are going to have to make redeployments,” Hahn said.
During her hearing, Kadri Simson, the Estonian nominee for EU energy commissioner, stressed the importance of EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, and lamented investments in research and innovation are not increasing fast enough. Achieving the target of a carbon neutral Europe by 2050 is “unthinkable” unless the EU makes a “colossal effort in research and innovation,” Simson said.
If confirmed, Simson will become a key player in energy projects funded by Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research programme.
She would also play a role in deciding the future of the €1.33 billion Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking, a long-running energy research partnership between the EU and industry, including firms such as Daimler, Toyota, and Engie.
Principal responsibility for EU research will fall to the commissioner for Innovation and Youth, with Bulgarian Mariya Gabriel in line to get that role after a comfortable hearing on Monday night.
However, responsibility for innovation has been spread around a number of portfolios in the proposed new commission, which takes office on 1 November.
A full 35 per cent of Horizon Europe’s budget is currently earmarked for tackling climate change, and the incoming commission president Ursula von der Leyen has created several new roles for commissioners sharing responsibility for climate policy, with a new vice-president for the European Green Deal, expected to be Frans Timmermans, overseeing them.
Simson came under some pressure, as MEPs questioned her support for shale oil during her time as Estonia’s minister for economic affairs and infrastructure. They also asked about the Estonian government’s decision in June to block an agreement committing EU countries to a target of neutral carbon emissions by 2050, a move that occurred in June, after Simson had left office.
Hahn has already been EU commissioner twice, occupying regional policy and enlargement portfolios, and was agile in navigating the storm of questions in the parliament. He told MEPs he will do his “utmost” to reach an agreement on the budget “towards the end of the winter."
Delivering an increase in research spending
A central task for Gabriel will be to deliver an increase in research spending, from €77-odd billion today up to €94.1 billion from 2021, at a time when the EU budget will take a hit from the UK’s departure.
During her hearing, Simson pledged to “work with my colleague Mariya Gabriel on how to use Horizon Europe as a catalyst for more public and private investment.”
To make up for the money lost because of Brexit, the European Parliament has agreed to ask member states to contribute 1.3 per cent of their gross national income to the EU budget.
MEPs say the European Commission should come up with new sources of income if it wants to boost investment in research and innovation, and other fields such as defence and international engagement. “New priorities have to be followed up with new financial methodologies,” Portuguese MEP José Manuel Fernandes told Hahn.
The commission has already set out plans for new sources of income from a tax on plastic bags and the expansion of carbon emissions trading schemes to aviation and maritime transport. In addition, commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen has proposed an EU cross border carbon tax.
Hahn told MEPs he is, “Very much committed to the extension of our own resources.”
The prospective commissioners feel confident that member states will support the new priorities in the budget.
However, Hahn plans to travel to what he termed “hardline” countries such as Poland “to make it clear to them what is necessary.” Poorer member states are reliant on structural funds to revamp their infrastructure, while countries like Poland and Romania still rely on coal and are reluctant to adhere to EU plans to cut carbon emissions.
As Hahn noted, the main objective of regional policy is to help poorer regions catch up. More and more member states are reaching that goal. He gave the example of Croatia, the newest EU member state, which benefits from one of the highest allocations per capita from structural funds. “I know that cuts always hurt, but I know that Croatia is doing fairly well,” said Hahn. “Everyone can probably expect cuts,” he added.
What the cohesion and agriculture nominees had to say
Elisa Ferreira, commissioner designate for cohesion and reforms, told MEPs that new policies should, at least in theory, receive new funding, but said she will support the highest possible budget for cohesion policy. “Traditional policies like cohesion and agriculture cannot be seen as a new source of funds,” said Ferreira.
In the case of agriculture, it is unclear as yet whether the new commission will defend the budget. Janusz Wojciechowski, the commissioner designate for agriculture had a rough ride during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
He left the cauldron without explaining how the agriculture budget will be affected by shifting priorities and what role he will play in the roll out of a new €10 billion fund for research on food and agriculture under Horizon Europe. MEPs are likely to recall him for a second hearing.