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Pressure on Council to protect Horizon 2020

As leaders gather in Brussels, a budget deal still looks far away

Politicians and scientific organisations have lobbied as loudly as they can to protect the Horizon 2020 budget during a torrid month of negotiations in Brussels. But despite a new offer on the table from the president of the EU Council, it remains unclear whether member states will secure a deal at this week’s summit of heads of government in Brussels—or what the eventual fate of Horizon 2020 might be.

Two months ago, the Commission’s proposed €80 billion budget for Horizon 2020 appeared to be in mortal danger [RE 27/9/12, p1]. On 29 October, the Cyprus presidency of the Council of Ministers published a proposal for the seven-year budget that indicated its intention to cut spending on growth programmes, rather than on the other major areas of cohesion and agriculture. That proposal included €18bn of cuts for competitiveness programmes (subheading 1a) from the Commission’s proposal, and ominously warned of “more sizeable reductions” to follow.

In response, five members of the European Parliament wrote to the president of the EU Council, Herman van Rompuy, asking him to fight for a substantial increase in the Horizon 2020 budget. “We fear there is very little awareness of the fact that the Commission proposal on Horizon 2020 already represents little more than a mere continuation of the 2013 funding level of Framework 7,” the MEPs wrote on 8 November. “Facing the poor levels of spending in member states, cutting the Horizon 2020 budget would be the most fatal thing to do.”

Nobel laureates and heads of scientific organisations also rallied to support the campaign, calling on heads of state to secure the EU research budget to protect the science base and promote growth. On 15 November, representatives presented an open letter by Nobel laureates, and a petition signed by more than 131,000 supporters, to the presidents of the three EU institutions in Brussels.

On 13 November, van Rompuy published an updated proposal that is more positive for competitiveness programmes than the Cyprus presidency’s plan. Van Rompuy’s suggestion is that 1a should only be reduced by €11.7bn from the Commission’s proposal, against weightier losses of €29.5bn for cohesion and €25.5bn for agriculture. Based on the incomplete figures presented in the proposal, this could leave around €74.6bn for Horizon 2020—provided that other types of competitiveness spending stay at the level proposed by the Commission.

Christian Ehler from the European People’s Party, who initiated the MEPs’ letter to van Rompuy, claims that the letter has influenced van Rompuy’s proposal. “We are happy that this apparently did not fail to make at least some impression,” he told Research Europe. “However, the Council’s position is still disquieting, especially against a background in which many member states have stressed that the proposed cuts are not yet deep enough.”

But, according to EU sources, van Rompuy’s proposal mainly reflects the outcome of bilateral discussions held between the president and member states—and in particular, the requests of net contributor countries. However, the proposed overall cuts of around €80bn may be insufficient to please the UK, which has asked for cuts of up to €200bn from the Commission’s total €1,033bn proposal for 2014-20.

Van Rompuy’s offer received a rapid dismissal from French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who said the deep cuts to agriculture meant the proposal was “by no means an acceptable basis for negotiation with France”. The so-called ‘friends of cohesion’ also arranged a public meeting to re-emphasise their determination to protect spending for poorer areas.

Such disparate views have led Brussels sources to surmise that agreement at the EU summit on 22 and 23 November may be impossible. As Research Europe went to press, an EU official said that a somewhat clearer picture would emerge following a meeting of ministers for European affairs on 20 November.

On 19 November, the Financial Times reported that EU officials were working on an unprecedented “budget of 26” for 2014-20, that might be agreed between other EU member states if the UK prime minister David Cameron vetoes a deal at this week’s summit.

MEP Ehler said: “Like many, I fear that the research budget might face a lot of pressure [this] week, given that national governments in the past have seldom failed to ensure cohesion and agriculture remain untouched. The result could easily be a catastrophe for the Horizon 2020 budget.”

If an agreement is reached between member states, the Council will then turn to the Parliament to approve or veto the whole package. However, tension between the two institutions has been heightened by the breakdown of discussions on the 2013 annual budget, after MEPs refused to attend a last-minute meeting because member states would not approve €9bn of extra funding requested for 2012.

This 2012 shortfall includes €423 million of payments for previously agreed research projects, the start of which will have to be delayed if the budget is not agreed, according to the Commission. Funds of €90m are also needed for the Erasmus exchange programme to continue as planned.

At an event in Brussels, Portuguese MEP Maria Da Graça Carvalho said it would be essential to separate the discussion of the 2012 and 2013 annual budgets from that of the long-term outlook. However, other MEPs expressed the view that, as with the annual budget negotiations, the Parliament may prefer to delay a decision rather than approve an unsatisfactory solution.

Policymakers are entering uncharted territory under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty: there is no clear precedent for how the decision-making process is likely to play out. Though the long-term EU budget is seldom decided at the initial round of negotiations, the financial crisis is making this budget round more volatile than ever—with no clear end point yet in sight.