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EU budget deal sacrifices research and innovation funds

Eyes turn to Parliament after national leaders settle on ‘disappointing’ budget for R&D

After four days of tense negotiations, heads of EU member states have agreed their stance on the EU’s 2021-27 budget and 2021-23 Covid-19 recovery fund, allocating €80.9 billion to the bloc’s Horizon Europe R&D programme and €21.2bn to its Erasmus+ mobility programme.

Both of those allocations are far lower than the European Parliament and R&D and higher education organisations have called for since the European Commission set out its initial proposals in 2018. In addition, the position reached by the European Council in the early hours of 21 July entirely scrapped a proposal to allocate €7.7bn from the recovery fund to a health programme, leaving the programme with just €1.76bn from the budget.

Research and education leaders told Research Professional News they were bitterly disappointed with the outcome, while acknowledging the difficulty national leaders faced in reaching an agreement. They are now hoping the Parliament will stand up for higher allocations, although its power to do so is severely limited.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, called the deal “a breach of trust between the academic and political worlds”, and said the budgets for research, innovation and health “have been butchered in an unprecedented way”.

“The university sector is obviously very disappointed,” said Thomas Estermann, director for governance, autonomy and funding at the European University Association. He said some national leaders had spoken out for investments in research and innovation, but that such advocacy had been “abandoned” to agree a deal.

“Ultimately, the national self-interest won,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “That can’t be good for Europe.”

In May, the Commission proposed Horizon Europe should get €80.9bn from the EU budget and an additional €13.5bn from the Covid-19 recovery fund. The Council agreed instead on €75.9bn and €5bn respectively. The Parliament and R&D organisations had been pushing for a total budget of €120bn.

Gabi Lombardo, director of the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities, said the outcome was “highly regrettable” given the EU is depending on research and innovation for its recovery from the pandemic.

The Parliament has scheduled a virtual session on 23 July to debate the deal. Under EU rules, the Parliament may only accept or reject the deal, not suggest amendments. But its chief spokesperson, Jaume Duch, said on Twitter that it “will launch negotiations with the Council aiming to improve the instruments agreed on the package adopted,” implying MEPs might try to pressure the Council itself to make amendments.

In a statement, Parliament negotiators said: “We will strive to secure improvements, including higher amounts, on future-oriented [budget] programmes like Horizon [Europe and] Erasmus+.”

Commentators said they would let MEPs know that universities are united behind efforts for more funding for Horizon Europe and Erasmus+. “We’ll certainly support Parliament in its ambition to get a better deal for Horizon [Europe],” said Palmowski. “We’ll see how much Parliament will want to flex its muscles.”

Deketelaere said MEPs must “prove what they are worth”. He called on Parliament to reject the deal, forcing a renegotiation in the Council. But Estermann said MEPs will face “an enormous amount of pressure” to accept it.

The two lead MEPs on Parliament’s research committee, Dan Nica and Christian Ehler, both expressed disappointment at the outcome.

“The answers to both the fight against [the] pandemic and to economic recovery are research, innovation and new technologies,” said Nica, adding that national leaders “decided not to invest in the future”.

“In the end, the compromise was to spend less money on the recovery and lose all ambitions on innovation,” said Ehler, adding that it was “bad news for European growth and competitiveness in the global context”.