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ERC saved but Council plays hardball on investment fund

Negotiators have reached a deal on the European Fund for Strategic Investments that safeguards the European Research Council, after member states emerged from intense negotiations with the upper hand.

On 28 May, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers agreed to spend €2.2 billion of Horizon 2020 money on Efsi—€500 million less than in the original proposal. The ERC, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation will be spared from contributing.

The deal followed an unsuccessful attempt by the Parliament to persuade member states that budgetary margins should be used to pay for the whole fund, or at least that any cuts to Horizon 2020 should be spread equally across the whole programme. 

“The Council was just one big brick wall—it was impossible to get through,” says Kathleen Van Brempt, a Belgian socialist MEP who led negotiations for the Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee. “I’m not overwhelmingly happy, but at least the Parliament managed to save a billion in cuts from Horizon 2020 and the Connecting Europe Facility.”

As well as the Horizon 2020 money, the CEF will contibute €2.8bn and the budgetary margins €3bn. Originally, member states wanted to use only €2bn from the margins.

Universities, science organisations and Nobel laureates lobbied for a reduction in the Horizon 2020 contribution—and that of basic research in particular, on the basis that it would not benefit from the investment fund. 

“The money for Efsi could go to applied and innovation-oriented research, but certainly not to the ERC and the Marie Curie recipients,” says Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of the scientists’ lobby group Euroscience, who says he is “quite positive” about the outcome.

The response of other organisations has been mixed. “Although we are positive about what happened, we think it is a bad signal that research money was used to launch this fund,” says Kurt Deketelaere, the secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. “Every year now, during the annual budget process, there will be a battle over Horizon 2020 funds.”

The European University Association has since called on member states to limit the impact of the cuts by putting more funds back into research through the annual budget procedure. Van Brempt says “there’s no certainty about that”, but adds that the Parliament will fight hard.

This article also appeared in Research Europe