‘Frozen conflict’ in Horizon Europe talks, as dispute over legal basis kicked into the future

09 Oct 2018 | News

It now falls to Romania as next holder of the EU Presidency to try resolve sticking point bedevilling negotiations, and allay concerns the next EU research programme will be delayed

Efforts to resolve a complex dispute at the heart of Horizon Europe are to be put off until next year, and it will now fall to Romania, which takes on the presidency of the EU Council on January 1, to settle the issue of the programme’s legal status.

The question of legal scope has become the biggest sticking point in the European Commission's proposal for the €94.1 billion R&D programme, after research ministers shot down the Commission’s request for a broader legal basis for Horizon Europe, to enable it to fund industrial development and early commercialisation activities.

Research ministers argue that the standard legal basis, used for Horizon 2020 and previous Framework R&D programmes, provides sufficient scope for funding such near-market work.

Some countries wanted to settle the issue now, but others said it should be parked to allow for progress in discussing the proposed content of Horizon Europe. The impasse has left negotiators with little option but to kick the issue into the future.

“It’s a river with no sign of a bridge right now,” said an official from the EU Council.  One MEP described the situation as a “frozen conflict” between the Commission and EU governments, with member states refusing to negotiate on this issue, even informally. 

Austria, the current lead on negotiating the first rough draft of Horizon Europe, says there is “reason to be optimistic” that there will be progress in parallel talks, including on programme content and rules of participation. 

“In order to get to an agreement among member states, plenty of sometimes detailed matters need to be settled, involving three layers of negotiators in Council, and 28 capitals with many ministries and stakeholders to be taken into consideration,” said Christian Naczinsky, head of EU research policy and coordination at the Austrian Ministry for Science, Research and Economy. “After all, this is a multi-billion research and innovation programme that will last for many years.”

Austria will provide a “progress report” on the unsettled issues, including the open legal question, which Romania “can build on” during its presidency, Naczinsky said.

Member states have been working on the assumption that clarity on the legal basis for Horizon Europe would emerge at a meeting of research ministers on November 30.

However, news of a squeezed time frame for settling the issue did not come as a complete surprise – insiders have long been concerned that the official timetable would slide – but it means actually reaching a final agreement is now likely to take longer than expected.

Both MEPs and the Commission are keen to complete the talks before European Parliament elections in May 2019. The EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas has warned that, “If we don’t agree on the programme before the elections, we will have a major problem.”

However, the Commissioner is thought to be relaxed about settling easier matters now, while creating political space to resolve the bigger questions later, even if it ups the stakes for the Romanian government in its first ever six-month turn at the helm of the Council of the EU.

Other EU officials, however, fear this extended round of ping-pong between the Commission and member states on the issue of the legal basis could delay ratification of the Horizon Europe programme.

At a public hearing in Brussels on Monday, German MEP Christian Ehler, one of two leads in drafting Horizon Europe for the Parliament, said the smooth negotiation of the programme should be a priority for everyone, amid the potentially disruptive aftermath of the UK’s exit from the bloc.

Some in Brussels are expressing the opinion that it could work to governments’ advantage if the negotiations slipped closer to the 2021 starting time for Horizon Europe, because this could put pressure on the Commission to find a way out of the current legal quagmire.  

Research officials from the Commission will meet government representatives on Monday to make progress on a separate dispute over who gets control over setting future mission-oriented research and industry partnerships.

The Commission’s original idea was to leave aspects of these funding instruments vague in the legal text for Horizon Europe, to allow maximum flexibility in the future, but member states are pushing for greater certainty on how the EU plans to spend its money.

Science vs. innovation

As talks stumble over legal arcana, the battle over funding priorities within the programme rages on.

At the hearing organised by the European Parliament in Brussels on Monday, MEPs and advocates representing basic science and technology each argued for more resources.

Horizon Europe’s tech ambitions threaten to overshadow science, said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “Our concern is that the Commission proposal is too focused on innovation and close-to-market solutions at the expense of science. Please, let us not just focus on technology.”

But European industry is worried without more investment it will be left behind by China and the US, said Sabine Herlitschka, CEO of Infineon Technologies Austria, and chair of the EU-funded ECSEL joint undertaking.

She argued that technology development in the US has advanced with little regard for national consumer privacy regulations. In China, meanwhile, the government is increasingly using big data to track and rank what its population is doing.

“Neither represents the future we want. Whomever dominates technology, dominates values,” said Herlitschka, whose company recently announced a €1.6 billion investment in a chip facility in Austria.

“The world needs more Europe, and more of our values. We ask for your strategic and political awareness of our role here,” Herlitschka said.

Commission officials are finely attuned to the sensitive, running debate over how best to divide money between science and innovation. “We really would not like to see this opposition between fundamental and applied research,” said Kurt Vandenberghe, director for policy development and coordination at the Commission's DG Research and Innovation. “We don’t find it useful to think in these terms. It’s more useful to look at who sets the agenda; the scientist, citizen or innovator.”

Ehler appealed for everyone to devote their energies to advocating for a rise in the overall research budget, rather than wasting it on internecine feuds. “My plea is this has to be a joint effort. If you all stick to silos and the micro-lobbying, there will be winners and losers [in the short term], but we’ll all lose collectively,” he said.

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