Why the European elections matter for science

28 Mar 2019 | News

Eurosceptics are forecast to make major gains in the elections. The expected clash of values will have ramifications for research funding - even if it’s an issue far from many voters’ minds

The looming European Parliament elections that will shape EU politics for the next five years and beyond will be fought on many issues: immigration; defence; greater EU integration, an assessment of the whole 60-year EU experiment; a choice for or against Europe.

If previous races have been largely preordained, there’s a real possibility this time around that anti-EU parties could win enough seats to disrupt legislative business, rather than just rail against it. That outcome could break the dominance of the conservative European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and Social-Democrats, with early voter intention surveys indicating both blocks will fail to win an outright majority.

Although it is difficult to forecast group alignments in the next chamber, gains for eurosceptic groups, such as Italy’s League, Germany’s AfD and France’s French National Rally, at the expense of mainstream, pro-EU politicians, may introduce more policy uncertainty, and delay in forming the new executive.

A large vote for eurosceptic groups – one study says they are poised to win more than one-third of seats in the assembly – could also force the next Commission to prioritise issues such as protection, defence and borders – over economic and social convergence. “Open to the world” – one of the slogans of the EU’s research programme – could become a harder sell.

Each of the 27 member states are expected to put forward candidates to fight for 705 seats (The UK, of course, departs before the elections, if all goes to plan).

The expected clash of values will have ramifications for science, even if it is not on many voters’ minds when they enter ballot stations.

EU laws originate in the European Commission, but Parliament has the powers to amend or reject. Individual MEPs therefore can wield considerable influence over policies. The assembly also has the power to effect appointments to the EU executive. In 2014, Parliament successfully demanded that EU governments nominate the lead candidate of the party winning the most seats for the top job of European Commission president.

Shaping the next research fund

The outcome researchers would like from the election is a new Parliament which is “a strong promotor of excellence based R&I policy, which is well funded and open to the world, certainly for non-member states with which the EU historically has strong links,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. “Not sure if this is guaranteed for the moment,” he added.

“We need a new Parliament that is willing to defend science against competing budget demands. If populists are on the rise, then this could have severe consequences for Parliament's support of Horizon Europe,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

“There is also a huge amount at stake in other ways: important questions about animal rights, privacy or patient data invite often emotive responses and attitudes from politicians and political parties,” Palmowski said.

Parliament, it has been argued, might work better if more of its members were scientists, rather than the lawyers, executives, and career politicians who typically seek office. 

For Palmowski, the second best option is, “to elect candidates (and parties) who are open to scientific argument, and who understand the importance of ensuring that European universities and European science are at the forefront of scientific research globally, whilst also setting ethical standards at a global level.”

For now, Horizon Europe, the next seven-year research programme, covering every discipline and sector, and spanning the spectrum from basic research to marketable technology, has broad support in Brussels. If adopted on time next year, it would commit €94.1 billion – up from €77 billion in the current programme – in grants, loans, cash prizes and equity to research projects from 2021 to 2027.

"It is a good thing that Horizon Europe is supported by such a big majority; this gives some hope that there is stability in the general support for research also in the next Parliament," said Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association.

While many of the internal ingredients of the programme will be in place before the new Parliament comes into office, there is a big battle to come over the next long-term EU budget. In particular, the plan to boost research while cutting agricultural spending, the biggest chunk of the EU budget, is coming under heavy fire from politicians and farmers. The proposal is one of the most contentious issues of the budget package, with the likes of Poland and Romania raising strong objections.

A Parliament in which nationalists are a stronger force may only add an additional hurdle to an already complicated process. Depending on the new mandate of the Parliament, the Commission may be forced to cut or compromise on the scale of Horizon Europe, a budgetary mainstay for thousands of researchers, entrepreneurs and engineers across the EU, and beyond.

In the poorer east and south parts of the continent, the EU budget is often the only major source of public R&D money available. Meanwhile, the continent’s big contract-research organisations, such as Germany’s Fraunhofer and Dutch TNO, collect millions every year from the EU science pot. Many university and public sector labs depend on it, with the biggest grant recipient being France’s national research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

R&D funding from Brussels also matters to many multinationals. Siemens, the single biggest corporate recipient of Horizon 2020 money, collected about €85 million from 2014 through to the first quarter of 2018, according to the Commission’s grant database. IBM’s European labs came second, at €60 million, and scores of other multinationals – from pharma to carmakers – join in.

Often it is less about the money per se, as the ease of access to academic collaborators and industrial partners that matters most to companies. That is certainly the case for SMEs, which are able to form alliances with university partners and their bigger peers.

Setting the pace at the top

Sheer numbers will not see the Parliament fall to the populists. An assortment of new eurosceptic MEPs would need to forge connecting links quickly if they are to become a cohesive political presence.

The political majority that emerges from the elections will not only determine the policies pursued by the Parliament, but possibly also the person who holds the most powerful executive office in the EU machinery, the Commission president.

Manfred Weber, the EPP politician campaigning to succeed Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, is running on what is appears to be the most science-friendly ticket, calling for a doubling of investment in cancer by Brussels – words that are likely to resonate with the research community.

Frans Timmermans, currently second in command at the Commission, is running as lead candidate for the Socialists party. Timmermans is probably best known in the research world for his battles with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. The Dutch politician has railed against new higher education laws in Hungary, which many feel were designed to shut down the Budapest-based Central European University. Weber, too, has recently targeted Orbán’s treatment of the university, having been criticised previously for accommodating the Hungarian prime minister’s party, Fidesz, in the EPP family for too long. 

From the other mainstream, pro-EU political families, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is proposing seven candidates for the EU's top job, including competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager and Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian PM and current leader of the Liberal group. The European Greens meanwhile are backing German MEP Ska Keller, who ran already in 2014, and Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout.

Governments, of course, may ultimately decide to nominate a higher-profile figure, such as the Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

A test of Macron’s vision

The elections will as much a test of the appetite for reform in Brussels, as it will be about populists.

In a recent newspaper column published in all 28 capitals, French President Emmanuel Macron calls for the European Innovation Council, the EU’s new tech funding body, to be given a larger budget "on a par with the United States" in order to support research in technologies such as artificial intelligence.

Macron also wants a new "European food safety force" to enforce the EU's food controls, while funding independent scientific research to combat the influence of corporate lobbies. Also among his proposals are new EU-wide environmental targets of "zero carbon by 2050 and pesticides halved by 2025" that would be financed by a new European Climate Bank.

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