Movers and shakers: The seven Horizon Europe budget players to watch

18 Jul 2018 | News

Call them what you will: change makers, thought leaders, people who get stuff done. This is the Science|Business guide to those with the most influence over the size and shape of the EU’s next research programme

Now the European Commission has set out its proposal for Horizon Europe, members of the European Parliament will be making the case for a larger budget for research programme, while member state governments will seek to trim those parts that do not directly benefit their countries.

The proceedings will take us into 2019, and possibly 2020.

Who are the main players to watch throughout the lengthy game of who blinks first?

Science|Business regularly canvasses its network of companies, investors, scientists and policymakers to identify the key influencers in the EU research world. Meet the – unavoidably male-heavy – Horizon Europe 7.

  1. Gunther Oettinger, EU budget Commissioner

Oettinger is a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, which makes him an unusually powerful gatekeeper in Brussels. He most recently wielded this influence to push for more EU research spending – delivering an unexpectedly big budget bump. Lobbyists will hope he can ward off the most militant force in EU politics – the farming lobbyists – who could place roadblocks in research’s path. His direct line to Merkel, and near-algorithmic purpose in achieving more money for research, will keep him an active player right into the final stages of the negotiations.

  1. Carlos Moedas, EU Research Commissioner

Polished technocrat and relentless supporter of start-ups and scaling-up, Moedas came through big time in June, managing something fellow commissioners could not: a budget increase. Now he’ll have to use all his powers of persuasion to hold on to this money through long negotiations. Moedas feels he has the backing of the two main political powerhouses in Europe, Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, whose governments have signalled support for more innovation investment through the new European Innovation Council.

  1. Jean-Eric Paquet, director general, DG Research and Innovation

Paquet, a career civil servant in Brussels, arrived DG Research after the groundwork for Horizon 2020 had almost fully been laid by his predecessor, Robert-Jan Smits. But the Frenchman’s background in the Commission secretariat-general makes him an important connector in the Berlaymont’s heavily top down structure. The secretariat-general has an essential role in every budget discussion, so Paquet’s inside track will surely be a bonus. He is seen as the proverbial safe pair of hands. He joined the Commission in 1996, working in jobs including cabinet member for then German enlargement commissioner Günter Verheugen. From 2002 to 2004, he was deputy head of cabinet of research commissioner Philippe Busquin.

  1. Christian Ehler MEP, Committee on Industry, Research and Energy

Few others better understand the politics of EU research negotiations. Ehler is a top student on the admin and lobbying games that come with getting framework programmes through the European Parliament, having been a rapporteur on Horizon 2020. He will negotiate on the 'specific programme' for Horizon Europe, meaning all the internal content. The outspoken German, who has been in the Parliament for 14 years, does not meekly fall in line with whatever the Commission sets out. Already, the MEP is shaking trees before the latest round of budget fights, warning the Commission not to cut industry grants, while lobbying colleagues and member states to gin up more money for research. Expect him to be in the loop on all key research discussions.

  1. Dan Nica MEP, Committee on Industry, Research and Energy

Until recently, not a lot of researchers will have heard of Nica. Now, they don’t have a choice: alongside Ehler, this is the man to impress if you want the research programme to include funding for your particular area. Nica, former deputy prime minister of Romania and a member of the Socialists and Democrats group inside the assembly, will negotiate on the overall regulation and rules of participation of the programme. Early indications suggest a hands-on involvement. Romania’s upcoming presidency of the European Council in the first half of 2019 could boost his influence further.

  1. Sebastian Kurz, Austrian chancellor 

With Austria hosting the rotating presidency of the European Council for the second half of 2018, the outspoken Kurz - at 31 the youngest national leader in the world - is in the uniquely powerful position to influence early talks on the size of the EU budget. The Commission will hope the Austrians can marshal consensus among other EU leaders in time for the European Parliament election in May 2019. Kurz will be instrumental in getting these gatekeepers to open or close their coffers. Early indications are that the Austrian leader, who has called for more spending on security and migration above all else, is against expanding the EU budget. Could he swing an axe on research?

  1. Kurt Vandenberghe, director, policy development and coordination, DG Research and Innovation

Described by Moedas as one of the quiet architects of Horizon Europe and a Commission hand for nearly 14 years, Vandenberghe knows EU research programmes just about as well as anyone. Well-liked and respected in Brussels, he spent four years as deputy head of cabinet for Moedas’ predecessor-but-one, Janez Potočnik (and five years as his head of cabinet when he held the environment brief), as well as almost three years as director on climate change policies.

The other players

It takes a village to launch an EU research programme. Beyond the seven main figures are a host of other cast members likely to make their influence felt in negotiations. These include António Vicente, Moedas’ head of cabinet, and Keith Sequeira, senior adviser to the commissioner.

Then there’s Jerzy Buzek, the ex-president of the European Parliament, now chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, and the top officials in the Romanian government, which will inherit the EU presidency of the European Council next year from Austria.

There are also figures outside policymaking circles who will court the spotlight. Mariana Mazzucato, director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at the University College London, is the chief exponent of Moedas’ vision for ‘missions’. She has the ear of Moedas and other key decision makers around Europe.

Alongside Mazzucato is Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, and chair of the European Innovation Council’s board of advisers. The venture capitalist’s extensive contact book will be key to establishing early credibility for the EU tech funder.

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