Sun up: First Horizon Europe work programmes finally see the light of day

16 Jun 2021 | News

Following serial postponements, the Commission releases documents setting out the timelines and scope of €14.7B worth of grants it will award over the next two years

EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel.   Photo: European Union

The first work programmes of EU’s new seven-year €95.5 billion research and innovation programme are finally out after months of delays and disputes over the budget and third country participation in quantum and space projects.

During the next two years, the European Commission will award grants worth €14.7 billion, of which over a third - €5.8 billion - will be targeted at Europe’s green goals. Another €4 billion will fund development of digital technologies. The first calls open on 22 June.

“Horizon Europe is now fully open for business. I would like to encourage researchers and innovators from all over the EU to apply and find solutions to improve our daily lives,” said EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel.   

Since March, the Commission and member states have been arguing whether to let scientists and companies from the UK, Switzerland and Israel to join quantum and space projects. Two weeks ago, they reached an outline agreement, opening the way for the Commission to publish the work programmes.

However, the Commission is yet to confirm the terms on which third parties will get access to sensitive projects, saying discussions are ongoing.

As a result, 21 quantum and space research calls have been further postponed, to 28 October, giving the policymakers more time to settle the rules of third country participation. “We now have four months’ time to have in depth consultations with member states to define the exact modalities of participation,” said Gabriel. In other words, the discussions will continue, but with a clear deadline.

Another question still left hanging is the exact format of five Horizon Europe missions that are being set up to address grand challenges in cancer, soil health, creating climate-neural cities, building climate resilience, and restoring ocean health.

The missions are a new addition to the research programme and the Commission is still trying to figure out how to best run them. A first call for projects to test the water and prepare the ground is due to launch on 22 June. But with the final verdict on what shape missions will take expected in the coming weeks, the Commission will have to update the work programmes to reflect this.

“Between now and the end of summer we can move to the next stage,” said Gabriel. The missions are “based on a new approach – co-creation, a joint effort with our citizens,” she said. “All this is very promising, but it is also a huge challenge.”

Three years of talks

The first outline of Horizon Europe appeared in 2018. A big novelty introduced back then was the European Innovation Council, the first EU instrument allowing the Commission to invest directly in companies. EIC launched as a pilot project in 2018 and is now a full-fledged agency with a budget of €10 billion (in current prices) for the next seven-years.

In March 2019, the Parliament and the Council came to an agreement confirming the details of much of the Horizon Europe. But a year later, the Council agreed a slimmed down budget for the research programme.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the Commission rushed to reshuffle funds, proposing  a €1.85 trillion infusion of cash to help Europe recover from the crisis. This recovery plan had a €13.5 billion top-up for Horizon Europe, bringing the total to €94.4 billion (in 2018 prices).

After further horse trading, in December 2020, the Council settled on €80.9 billion (in 2018 prices) for Horizon Europe, or €95.5 billion in current prices, including €5 billion (in 2018 prices) from the EU recovery fund.

Quantum and space row

By the beginning of the 2021 the legal details were largely settled, but apart from a few exceptions, such as the European Innovation Council, work programmes were not being published. They were promised in March, but the deadline was pushed to April, then to the first half of May, then late May.

The reason was the Commission’s decision to ban third countries from quantum and space research. But member states led by Germany, were against this protectionist approach, and some were annoyed the Commission took the issue on just before publication of the calls. They warned the EU needs talent from Israel, the UK and Switzerland to succeed in these technologies.

Researchers and universities agreed, showing support for a more inclusive research programme. One MEP said the EU would be “shooting itself in the foot” if it excluded the three countries from quantum and space research.

The deal on third country access says they can participate as long as they give assurances they will protect the EU’s strategic assets, interests, autonomy or security.

Over the summer, the Commission and member states will decide what exactly these “assurances” will entail. They will then be discussed with the countries in question during individual negotiations on associate status.

Two criteria for participating in projects deemed ‘sensitive’ already apply to member states. They must guarantee private companies will not be taken over by foreign companies if they hold sensitive intellectual property, and researchers must agree not to export the IP outside the EU. The same is likely to apply to Horizon Europe associated countries.

But this is not set in stone and other conditions may come up during the summer. “Today, we haven’t taken any decision as to any specific countries,” said Gabriel.

In a programme with more than 1,000 calls open to international partners, only the 21 calls on quantum and space are a sore subject, said Gabriel. “This is the most open programme in the world. All this will be balanced with the need to protect the interests of Europe in strategic areas in order to promote the leadership and competition of Europe in terms of technologies,” she said.

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