Spanish presidency proposes cuts to Horizon Europe

30 Nov 2023 | News

Documents leaked to Science|Business show the EU research programme could lose as much as €5.3B, as member states scramble to find money to pay back recovery fund loans

Spain currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. Photo: European Union

The Spanish presidency has proposed shaving as much as €5.3 billion off Horizon Europe to finance skyrocketing EU recovery fund interest rates, according to a leaked proposal seen by Science|Business.

The working document, sent to the member states last week, outlines three scenarios for cutting EU funding for 2025 - 2027, including one that suggests a cut as high as 13.5%. According to the document, EU ambassadors discussed the document at a Coreper meeting on 23 November.

If agreed to by the member states and subsequently by the European Parliament, this could cost EU researchers as much as €5.3 billion in the worst case and €1.3 billion in the smallest proposed cut is applied. While Horizon Europe would be in line for the biggest cut, other research-related programmes, such as Erasmus+, EU4Health and Digital Europe, would also see cuts as high as 13.5%.

The idea hasn’t gone down well with research proponents. Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Intensive Universities, ​said it, “would be a complete disaster and a complete denial of the EU rhetoric on issues of strategic autonomy for which more research and innovation investment is an absolute precondition.”

Joep Roet, deputy director at the Netherlands house for Education and Research, says the cuts would be disastrous in times of intensifying geopolitical competition. "We would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, and jeopardise the green and digital transitions," he told Science|Business.

For Thomas Estermann, director at the European University Association, any such proposal would deal a blow to Europe’s competitiveness and further highlights the need for research money to be better safeguarded against cuts.

“It shows how important it is to have a much bigger security for funds that have been agreed on,” said Estermann. “Taking money from one of Europe’s highest added value funding programmes is really not the way to go.”

‘Killing the future of Europe’

The European Parliament, which must approve any budget change, is likely to condemn the cuts too.

Jan Olbrycht, the Parliament’s rapporteur on the topic, says any cuts would negate the ongoing discussions in the Parliament and also the Commission’s vision of strengthening the EU research programme as part of the mid-term revision of the seven-year EU budget.

“In case of any cuts, we would therefore have to take money from the programmes that we ultimately want to strengthen,” said Olbrych. “The European Parliament expressed its position both in its report on multiannual financial framework revision as well as in the recently concluded agreement on the 2024 budget - financing of research and innovation must be strengthened.

 The Parliament’s leading voice on research, Christian Ehler said the cuts would put at risk Europe’s climate objectives, competitiveness and digital ambitions. He is calling on stakeholders to mobilise against them.

“This proposal once more underlines that the member states are willing to kill the future of Europe if it saves them money next year,” Ehler said. “Even worse, it is an affront against the inherent value of science and innovation for the European project.”

The leaked document proposes either 3.4%, 6.8% or 13.5% cuts to all EU programmes, excluding agriculture and cohesion, where the funds are already legally committed.

Roet said it is unacceptable that regional and agricultural funds, which account for two thirds of EU spending, are safeguarded against the cuts. "One might expect more from a presidency that dedicated Council conclusions to the role of research and innovation in policymaking," he said.

Any cuts would apply only to the EU budget that hasn’t been spent yet. For Horizon Europe, this excludes €50 billion spent or committed between 2021 and 2024, so the cuts would be applied to the balance of €40 billion (the total budget for Horizon Europe is higher, but €90 billion is the amount committed in the EU’s current seven year multiannual financial framework).

Scenario 1: A 3.4% cut translates as €1.3 billion off Horizon Europe, €0.4 billion off Erasmus+, €0.2 billion off the space programme, €0.1 billion off Digital Europe, €0.1 billion off EDF, €0.1 billion off EU4Health.

Scenario 2: A 6.8% cut, or €2.7 off Horizon Europe, €0.9 billion off Erasmus+, €0.4 billion off the space programme, €0.3 billion from Digital Europe, €0.3 billion off EDF, €0.2 billion off EU4Health.

Scenario 3: A 13.5% cut, or €5.3 billion off Horizon Europe, €1.7 billion off Erasmus+, €0.8 billion off the space programme, €0.5 billion off Digital Europe, €0.6 billion off EDF, €0.5 billion off EU4Health, and €0.1 billion off Euratom.

Other research-related programmes would also be affected.

The member states debated these options as part of the ongoing negotiations on the mid-term review of the seven-year EU budget last week.

In the review, the European Commission is asking the member states for top-ups rather than cuts. But the member states are reportedly reluctant to put more money in the common EU pot, because they are struggling to fill gaps in their national budgets.

Germany, the EU budget’s biggest contributor, has already said no to most top-ups. A change of heart is looking less and less likely after the government froze all spending last week in response to a constitutional court ruling that it had reached the upper ceiling of its federal deficit.

Despite this, the European Parliament, which settled on its negotiating position for the review last month, is asking the member states to put more money into the EU budget than the Commission is asking for. The demand includes an additional €3 billion for the Strategic Technologies for European Platform (STEP), a newly created programme that tops up EU funds developing manufacturing capacity for digital, net-zero and biotechnologies.

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