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Member states oppose Iter ‘shadow budget’

Eight nations want fusion project kept within Framework

The EU’s most powerful member states have rejected a European Commission proposal to create an external, long-term budget for Iter, the France-based fusion research project.

Laurent Wauquiez, France’s research minister, and seven colleagues sent an open letter to the research and budget commissioners on 16 November, saying in a statement that it would be “absurd” for the funding not to be channelled through the EU. “The proposal goes contrary to current practices, and also against the principle of transparency,” says the letter, which was also signed by the research ministers of Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

A Brussels-based German diplomat put the member states’ position more starkly. “We don’t want any shadow budgets,” he told Research Europe. “An external budget would set a dangerous precedent for dealing with Commission problems by taking these budgets away from Commission control.”

All countries that signed the letter are traditional net payers, meaning they pay more money into the EU than they get out. The diplomat says these countries are worried about losing control of the budget. Their rejection of the Commission plan will put pressure on the rest of the EU research budget if, as looks increasingly likely, it has to absorb Iter’s burgeoning costs.

The Iter project has seven international members, one of which is the EU and all its member states. As host of the project, the EU pays more than half of the project costs, which were estimated in a July 2010 review at up to €15 billion. Since France agreed to host the project in 2005, the EU’s expected contribution has grown from €2.7bn to €7.2bn, the amount that the Commission now wants to place in a separate pot.

In June, the Commission suggested putting Iter in a budget outside the EU’s multi-annual financial framework, which is decided by the European Parliament and the member states, and managed by the Commission.

A spokesman for the Commission’s research directorate said that the separate budget would suit the 30-year-long Iter project better than its current position within the Euratom budget, which, in turn, is part of the EU’s growth and competitiveness budget, which includes most research funding. “The multi-annual framework works in seven-year cycles. This is not flexible enough for projects of this nature, which are very long in duration and involve a lot of international partners,” the spokesman said.

The European Parliament is in two minds about the idea. The budget committee is still considering its position, but Herbert Reul, a German Christian Democrat MEP and chairman of the Industry, Research and Energy committee, says he opposes the Commission’s proposal. “I’m not aware of any previous examples. There are, of course, flexibility mechanisms in the budget, which have been used in the past, for example in case of catastrophes,” he says. “But the Commission’s proposal is problematic, because it threatens the long-term coherence of the EU budget. It’s unlikely the Commission will get this through.”

The letter warns that the ongoing budget fights around Iter could be seen as a sign that the EU is disengaging from international, strategic projects. The Commission spokesman denied this, saying: “We are very committed to projects of this nature, and that is exactly why this proposal has been made.”

However, Steven Cowley, the director of the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxford, which hosts the Joint European Torus, a project that is contributing to preparations for Iter, says that continued uncertainty over EU funding for Iter will upset the project’s other partners. “There is a danger that all this to-ing and fro-ing will affect relations, particularly with the partners from emerging economies,” he says. “China, India and South Korea will not take kindly” to any further delays in the project, he says. Japan is already considering Iter as a source for future spending cuts.