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MEPs speak out against budget deal

But veto would prolong delays and uncertainty for Horizon 2020

MEPs have threatened to veto the Council’s agreement on the EU budget for 2014-20, if the ‘backwards-looking’ deal is not amended to increase financial flexibility and decrease the budget deficit.

But observers say this could launch an institutional crisis and commit the EU to an annual budget system that would cripple programmes, such as Horizon 2020, set to begin at the start of 2014.

Addressing EU Council president Herman Van Rompuy in a debate on 18 February, the leaders of the four largest political groups in the European Parliament said they could not support the budget as it stands. Joseph Daul from the European People’s Party described the deal as “unacceptable”, while Hannes Swoboda, from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, said it represents a “draft budget” that should be “the basis for negotiations”.

“The budget before us is not one we can sign up to because it does not have the support of the majority from the European Parliament,” said Swoboda. The political groups have yet to establish their official positions, but their decisions are expected imminently, as the MEPs intend to vote on the budget in a plenary session between 11 and 14 March.

The budget package agreed on 8 February consists of spending commitments of €960 billion for the next seven years, including around €70.9bn for Horizon 2020. The Parliament’s approval is required before the financial framework can be established in 2014.

MEPs have criticised the Council’s deal for failing to allocate adequate funds to competitiveness programmes—including Horizon 2020, which MEPs have previously said should receive €100bn. However, a higher priority for the Parliament is more flexibility within the budget, to allow the transfer of unused funds between different sections of the budget and between different years—which they say would help tackle the deficit between commitments and payments.

MEPs are also anxious to ensure effective implementation of a new revision clause, which would allow the budget to be reassessed after three years.

Fabian Zuleeg, from the European Policy Centre, says MEPs are making their voices heard because there is still a lot to play for. “Not in terms of the overall amount, because I don’t think this will be re-opened, but in terms of processes like flexibility,” he says. “In the end, as long as the Parliament gets some of the things it’s asking for, I think it would be very difficult for them to vote against it.”

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, says the Parliament must consider if they could increase competitiveness spending even if they veto the budget. “I’m doubtful because I don’t think in the Council you will get a better deal,” he says. “If, without significant collateral damage, they could increase the Horizon budget to €80bn or to €100bn, certainly I would support that.”

But, if there is a veto, the result could be significant delay and a good deal of uncertainty. “Do you rip everything up and try to start again? It’s very difficult to see exactly what kind of alternative budget could be put on the table,” said Zuleeg.

With no financial framework in place for the start of 2014, this year’s budget would be rolled over and administered on a monthly basis, which would effectively block work on long-term programmes such as Horizon 2020. Yet some MEPs say this situation would be no worse than the offer currently on the table.

The Parliament’s president, Martin Schulz, has said MEPs will request a vote via a secret ballot, which he says will make it easier for them to defy pressure from their national governments and reject the proposal. However, Martin Callanan, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists party, said the Parliament would be the “subject of ridicule” if it could not stand up to the strength of its convictions in public.