Growing risk of delay to start of Horizon Europe as talks drag on

29 Oct 2020 | News

Parliament’s budget rapporteur goes on hunger strike to protest the council’s unwillingness to top up Horizon Europe and 14 other programmes, as negotiations go past the deadline set by German presidency

Horizon Hunger strike

MEP Pierre Larrouturou on a hunger strike. Photo: Pierre Larrouturou.

The European Parliament decried the EU Council’s “hardened stance” on top-ups for Horizon Europe and 14 other programmes, after negotiators failed once more to reach a deal on the EU’s multiannual budget.

The negotiations took an unexpected turn on Wednesday, with the parliament’s budget rapporteur Pierre Larrouturou starting a hunger strike, as his colleagues in the budget negotiating team were about to enter a new round of talks with the German presidency of council. Larrouturou is one of the parliament’s staunch supporters of a higher budget for the research programme.

“The fact that MEP Larrouturou went on hunger strike testifies the urgency for the council to review its position on the long-term budget and to fund future-oriented activities such as research, education and innovation better,” said David Bohmert, secretary general of CESAER, the association of leading science and technology universities.

In a statement published late on Wednesday evening, MEPs said the council had “blindly rejected” a proposal to remove the cost of repaying the loans taken out to finance the EU’s pandemic recovery fund from the seven-year budget ceilings in order to secure €12.9 billion “to finance unforeseen needs in the coming years.”

MEP Johan Van Overtveldt said there are two reasons why the parliament wants to take the cost of repaying recovery fund loans out of the long-term budget: to secure genuine increases to the programmes and protect the rest of the budget from the costs of the recovery plan. “This is a fundamental point for parliament,” said Van Overtveldt.

The parliament’s latest proposal is less ambitious than a previous plan to secure an extra €39 billion for Horizon Europe, Erasmus and other forward-looking programmes.

MEPs also want the council to agree on a binding plan that would enable the EU to raise its own taxes to repay the debt taken on to finance the pandemic recovery fund and to route additional funding to research, health, environment and education programmes.

German spokesman Sebastian Fischer said however, that the parliament had only “repackaged” previous proposals and did not come up with new ideas that would break the stalemate. “There was neither a new proposal on the table nor an attempt for a breakthrough,” Fischer said.

Germany had hoped to reach a deal on the EU’s long-term budget before the end of October so that it can decide – together with the parliament – on the final details of Horizon Europe. While both sides have made advances at the technical level, the programme cannot start until a political agreement is reached on how the internal budget of Horizon is divided across its three pillars: excellent science, clusters for applied research and the innovation component.

Losing ground

Earlier this week rumours started circulating in Brussels about certain groups of MEPs beginning to break ranks from the budget negotiators’ hardline stance. A report by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung suggested MEPs in the centre-right Christian-democratic group CDU/CSU would prefer the parliament and council to agree tougher rules for how the budget is spent, instead of fighting over top-ups. Both institutions are working on a deal that would make the allocation of EU funds to member states conditional on them safeguarding the principles of rule of law and academic freedom.

“I’m not so sure the [parliament’s] negotiating team can continue to drag it out for much longer,” said Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy at the European University Association. “In the parliament there are several groups that don’t stand behind [the top-ups] anymore.”

Horizon Europe rapporteur Christian Ehler is also a member of CDU but, so far, he has not announced a change of heart on the research budget. Last week, Ehler published a statement arguing that a small budget for research “maims Europe’s ability to step into the next decade” and will not allow Europe to catch up with its competitors US and China.

Estermann believes that while the parliament had formed a united front in July after member states agreed to a smaller research budget than foreseen by the European Commission, some MEPs are now less motivated to drag on the budget debate. “The pressure mounts,” he said.

What do researchers want?

Research stakeholders support the parliament’s effort to secure more funding for Horizon Europe and Erasmus, but some warn that a small top-up is not worth risking a delay in starting the seven-year programmes.

For Bohmert, a deal that secures additional funding is more important and urged the commission to start preparing for a “smooth functioning” of its budget extension emergency plan, the so called system of provisional twelves, which allows the commission to allocate a sum not higher than 1/12 of the previous budget, if a budget is not definitively adopted before the start of a new financial year.

“It is now up to the council to move and to secure an acceptable deal with the parliament and for the commission to assure smooth functioning of the 1/12 rule,” said Bohmert.

“We particularly call on the German Presidency of the Council of the EU to assure the quick introduction of own income sources for the EU and to award revenues to future-oriented programmes such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus,” Bohmert added.

The European trade association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) is also sticking to the parliament’s position. In an emailed statement on Thursday, EARTO said, “We would prefer for the [parliament] to keep fighting for a bigger Horizon budget and we fully support the [budget] negotiating team, as well as MEP Ehler.”

But, with only two months left until the launch of the EU long-term budget and Horizon Europe, some research stakeholders are wondering whether a small top-up is worth risking a delayed start. Universities are more worried about the distribution of money inside Horizon Europe and would prefer to see a higher budget for the bottom-up research calls of the European Research Council (ERC). “It will be very important to make the right decisions rather than make sacrifices for what is not a major top-up,” said Estermann.

While EUA supports the parliament and its attempts to secure a bigger budget for research, a growing number of universities also want to start the Horizon programme on time and make sure more money will be allocated to the ERC. “Our members certainly have a strong interest in the programmes start[ing] in time,” said Estermann.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up