Mind the gap: budget tussle set to delay full start of Horizon Europe

06 Feb 2020 | News

The hold up in agreeing the EU’s next seven year financial framework means there will be a hiatus in grant awards between the two Horizon R&D programmes

Paul Webb, Head of Unit, Budget and MFF Synergies, at DG Research. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

Everyone has been wondering. Now they know: researchers and companies will indeed face a delay between the end of Horizon 2020 in December and when they can start to apply for grants from the new Horizon Europe programme. The open question is how long the gap will last.

“I think there will be some gap whatever [happens], but there is a potential for a longer gap,” Paul Webb, Head of Unit, Budget and MFF Synergies, at DG Research, told a Science|Business conference in Brussels on 4 February. “Let’s hope it’s not long.”

Webb pinned the blame for the failure to agree the next seven-year Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), on the rise of the populist parties. They make it more difficult to find compromises, he said, noting with regret that perhaps “compromise” itself has become a dirty word. “It used to be what we were good at in Europe,” he said wistfully.

Whatever the delay, it is unlikely to strike evenly across Horizon Europe. Webb confirmed that two of the three “pillars” of the new programme – basic research and innovation – are essentially ready to go. “We can start Pillar One and Pillar Three the day after they are agreed,” he said.

The big problem area will be Pillar Two – Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness. “You can’t set the work programmes [for the missions in Pillar 2] without a budget,” he told Science|Business, unlike, for example Pillar 1, involving the European Research Council. 

Strategic planning for the European Research Council’s workplan, along with that of the European Innovation Council, has been accelerated, said Webb. He later confirmed to Science|Business that once ready those workplans could be released to the research community at any time, giving applicants time to prepare submissions.

The budget talks are a high-stakes game, and the Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn upped the ante in January by announcing that there would be no contingency planning for a temporary financial framework in the event of a failure to agree the MFF – despite a call from the European Parliament to do just that.

It all puts even more pressure on the Croatian presidency of the EU, whose job it is to steer a way through to a budget settlement. It seems, though, that few expect any success until Germany takes over the rotating presidency for the second six months of the year.

Many in Germany are unenthusiastic about being handed the poisoned chalice. “We have a very big interest as Germany that Croatia is successful [in breaking the budget deadlock],” Bundestag member Stefan Kaufmann, spokesperson for its Education, Research, Science and Technology Assessment Committee, told the conference. “Otherwise it will be a big burden for the German presidency – we have a lot of other topics we want to talk about.”

If it has to fix the budget crisis, Germany would need to get to work quickly recruiting allies, said Kaufmann. “We have to find partners for our position, which is to give more money to future-oriented programmes.” He suggested sugaring the pill for some EU member states by putting more money into widening participation.

More than that, Germany will also need to come off the fence and work out how much it is prepared to put into the EU pot. It currently lacks a position about a fixed percentage contribution, he observed.


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