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Hopes fade for boost from mid-term review

Migration likely to dominate review—if it happens

Prospects for a boost to research funding from the mid-term review of the EU’s seven-year financial framework are slim to non-existent, officials close to the review have said.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council, told a parliamentary committee last week that the ERC alone could use €1.5 billion in extra funding. Officials cautioned privately, however, that the mid-term alterations to the budget may not happen at all—and that if they do, emergency funds to deal with the migration crisis will take priority over long-term programmes such as research.

The multiannual financial framework (MFF) in place at the moment lays down what the EU can spend from 2014 to 2020. A compulsory mid-term review, to be undertaken by the Commission by the end of 2016, was negotiated by the European Parliament during talks on the framework, which were concluded in February 2013.

MEPs on the Parliament’s research committee have said that they hope the review will be an opportunity to boost Horizon 2020, which was given €77bn for the seven-year period, against the Parliament’s initial target of €100bn. Last year, €2.2bn of the Horizon 2020 budget was diverted to support the European Fund for Strategic Investments (Efsi).

Addressing the Parliament’s budgets committee on 27 January, Bourguignon said that budgetary constraints forced the ERC to turn down high-quality applications. He called for €1.5bn on top of the present ERC budget commitment until 2020, to allow the council to “increase significantly the number of researchers it supports”.

But one official close to negotiations says that any flexibility in the financial framework will be used for “unanticipated funding needs” such as securing borders and tackling the migration crisis, which have become urgent since the MFF deal was reached.

 Siegfried Muresan, European People’s Party spokesman and vice-chairman of the budgets committee, says that the EPP is looking for a “significant revision” of the framework at its mid-term review. Funds already allocated to member states can’t be touched, he concedes, and in fact research funds are one of the areas that could theoretically be targeted for redistribution. But Muresan says that it is unlikely that research funding will be at risk, having already lost money to Efsi in 2015.

Other officials point out that it is by no means certain that any correction to the MFF budget numbers will actually be implemented, whatever the Commission’s review finds. The Commission isn’t required to propose such a correction—and there is widespread scepticism that any changes to the existing MFF can be agreed before the Commission is due to present a proposal for the next MFF in 2018.

“There appears to be no concrete deadline for the adoption of an MFF revision,” one EU official says. Any revisions to the MFF would need to be agreed unanimously by 28 member states and the Parliament. “If the Commission made a change to the current MFF it might not be possible to conclude negotiations before the proposal for the next MFF is put on the table and it would therefore not succeed,” the official says.

While MEPs are expected to push publicly for a revision, the official says, it is likely that the mid-term review will instead serve as a “preparing stage” for the next MFF, which will run from 2021 to 2027.

An additional factor that could limit scope for revising the MFF is Britain’s renegotiation of its position in the EU ahead of its upcoming referendum on UK membership of the union, which will take place by the end of 2017. Any calls for more money from the member states ahead of the referendum could be used as ammunition for those campaigning for Britain to leave the union.

Every part of the Commission, including the research directorate, is expected to complete a review of its portfolio by the end of the year. It appears increasingly likely, however, that any changes will have to take place within the existing budget.

This article also appeared in Research Europe