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EU research ministers warned over their colleagues’ plan for cut

Image: European Parliament / Alain Rolland

MEP Christian Ehler says only finance ministers are negotiating planned cut to EU research programme

EU research and innovation ministers have been warned they might not be fully aware of the problems that could be caused by their colleagues in finance ministries, who are planning cuts to the bloc’s R&I spending.

MEP Christian Ehler, a leading member of the European Parliament’s research committee, issued the warning on 22 January to Belgium’s R&I minister Willy Borsus, who was informing the committee about the plans of his country’s January-June turn at chairing the Council of the EU governments.

Ehler (pictured) complained that negotiations on the Council’s attempt to cut €2.1 billion from the remainder of the EU’s 2021-27 R&I programme, Horizon Europe, are involving only finance ministers, not R&I ministers.

‘Strangely isolated’

“This is a strangely isolated discussion we have with the finance ministers, where the ministers of research…are not even involved,” Ehler said in the committee session.

Discussions on policies to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and support strategic technologies are also taking place only within the same small circle of politicians, despite their impact and dependence on R&I policy, he added.

“We have the impression that a relatively limited number of people…are negotiating a lot of files which are in your prerogatives,” Ehler told the R&I minister. “There are certain silos.”

He asked: “In this complicated and complex time and negotiation, when everything is related to everything, what is the coordination within the Belgian presidency?”

In the context of the attempted cut to the R&I programme, Ehler also criticised European Commission plans for the EU to increase its support for dual-use R&I, which has military as well as civil potential. He expects these plans to be presented next week, he said.

“That brings financing yet again under pressure because it would mean that you allocate yet again money which is not there to another ambition. What is your idea [of] how to cope with that?”

‘Shared concerns’

Responding, Borsus told Ehler that he thought the budget outlook for the EU was “indeed rather difficult”.

“The Belgian presidency shares the various concerns and comments that have been voiced here. In the particularly complex geostrategic and geopolitical situation we find ourselves in…the negotiations for the review of the [2021-27 EU budget] are…particularly difficult,” Borsus said.

“It would be my wish that within this context, we devote particular attention to the budget we need, with R&I being seen as a priority, although I’m fully aware of how difficult the budget exercise is.”

On the issue of who is taking part in the negotiations, Borsus implied he agrees there could be a problem. He said: “We’ve got the distribution of competences, whether that be European level, Belgian level, which may not necessarily allow messages to get through, or not as well as they should do, on the importance of supporting something or making people aware of the budgetary constraints that exist.

“Often this does risk kind of killing off an important programme, and so I absolutely understand what you were saying there, and that’s certainly a message that we’ve understood as people responsible for R&I and something that we do speak to our colleagues about when we’re dealing with budgetary matters.”