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Mediterranean science club goes ahead

Prima initiative emerges from political minefield

The EU has launched its landmark Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area, five years after it was first proposed.

The Prima initiative is set to run for 10 years starting in 2018, and has a budget of €473 million. The aim is to build research capacity and support innovation for sustainable water management and food production in the Mediterranean region.

The Maltese presidency of the Council of Ministers, which represents the national governments in the EU, struck a deal with the European Parliament on 11 April to launch the initiative. Developing the partnership has been a political minefield, according to negotiators. “The original plan was to have Prima up and running under the Italian presidency of the Council in 2014,” says Luis Guasch, who was involved in the negotiations on the Spanish government’s side. “But that was impossible; it required a lot of compromise on behalf of the countries.”

Negotiations were stalled by political tensions in the Middle East, Guasch says. ”Israel wanted to be involved in Prima, but countries including Egypt and Libya did not at first accept it as a partner.”

In addition, northern European countries opposed the initiative, arguing that its scope was not pan-European enough, Guasch says. He adds, however, that those same countries had backed the €100m Joint Baltic Sea Research Programme, Prima’s equivalent for the Baltic region, in 2009.

The agreement involves the six Mediterranean countries in the EU—Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain—as well as Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal. Prima also includes six non-EU countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. Since it was announced, Turkey and Algeria have also joined. Meanwhile, France and Egypt have put forward candidates to become its director.

In October, research commissioner Carlos Moedas billed the initiative as a contribution towards one of the EU’s biggest political priorities: migration. “Through Prima, research and innovation will play a crucial role in addressing the root causes of migration,” he said.

To tackle issues such as conflict and poverty, Prima aims to develop a common long-term strategy for food and water provision in the Mediterranean region. It strives to orient the national research programmes of its partners towards implementing this.

Participating governments will contribute €253m to the initiative, which will be matched by €220m from the European Commission. Governments have also agreed to make in-kind contributions worth €121m.

However, a point of contention has been how the agency is governed. The partners had originally agreed to run the initiative through the Union for the Mediterranean, a Barcelona-based intergovernmental body, which covers all Prima countries. But last year, the Commission ruled that the UfM was not an international organisation as required by the Prima rules, and decided to set up a private foundation to run the initiative instead. According to Guasch, this raised eyebrows among some members.

The partners also had to find a way to allocate funding fairly. The final deal will create two funding pillars, a Commission pillar and a governments’ pillar, and a way for moving between them. “We created this mechanism so that projects in the second pillar can be temporarily shifted to the first when the money runs out, so as to tap into the Commission funds a bit more,” says Ian Gauci Borda, Malta’s Prima negotiator.

Through this trick, smaller member states with less funding to contribute can be assured that their projects will be supported throughout, Gauci Borda says. “So, instead of skipping that project and not following strictly the ranking [of excellent projects], the project is moved to pillar one and is funded from there.”

The Prima text was reviewed on 24 April by the Committee of Permanent Representatives, made up of government ambassadors to the EU. The Council is scheduled to discuss the agreement on 3 and 4 May.

This article also appeared in Research Europe