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Push for ERA law gains momentum

Parliament demands action as soft approach falls short

MEPs are calling on the EU to consider introducing legislation on the European Research Area, after research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn acknowledged that legal action is a possibility after 2014.

In a manifesto called Towards a Maastricht for Research, seen by Research Europe, MEPs say that the voluntary approach to the ERA is not working and that member states need a push to make it a reality. The document, which has received support from university and research organisations, is to be presented to the European Commission on 16 October. 

The move follows comments made by Geoghegan-Quinn on 27 September after a meeting with national research ministers: “I wouldn’t rule out the legislative route. There’s a huge amount of work to be done.”

According to the manifesto, “the most far-sighted and courageous approach should take the form of directives and, in the long run, of a constitutional commitment of European research in the next legislature”. One of the authors, Luigi Berlinguer, an Italian MEP from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, says the Commission has not been brave enough in its implementation of the ERA. “The Commission’s conclusion in 2012 was that no legal measures should be adopted—only recommendations,” says Berlinguer. “This was well intentioned but it was too timid, too hesitant.”

Many of the observations in the manifesto echo those of an ERA progress report from the Commission, released on 23 September, which said that member states were a long way from achieving a single market for research. The manifesto was co-authored by Amalia Sartori, chairwoman of the Parliament’s research committee, which has given its support.

The decision on whether to pursue legislation will fall to Geoghegan-Quinn’s successor after the European elections next year. The deadline for completion of the ERA is the end of 2014. Kurt Deketelaere, a law professor at the University of Leuven, says: “It would be naïve from the side of that commissioner to think we can realise the ERA solely through voluntary measures.”

“We need to broaden the ERA toolbox. One approach would be to go for a broad framework directive, calling on member states to avoid any obstacles for the realisation of the ERA,” Deketelaere says. By setting out the principles and goals of the ERA, such a directive could provide researchers and institutions with a legal right to request changes to national research systems, he adds.

However, Dan Andrée, an adviser to the Swedish ministry of research, is sceptical about whether a directive would work. He says that an attempt by the Commission to forcibly align national research policies would quickly be rebuffed: “Most member states see that the aim of national research policy is to make sure they have the best research in their own country.”

A source at the Parliament told Research Europe that MEPs may instead try to progress piecemeal legislation in individual areas that would be more easily accepted by national governments.

“Action on issues such as research infrastructure taxation, social security for researchers or open access—this is absolutely the minimum, because we are not going to be able to solve these through a bottom-up approach,” says Deketelaere.

The manifesto has been timed to precede a summit of EU heads of state, who will discuss research issues and the ERA on 24 and 25 October. MEPs and research organisations are scheduled to meet on 17 October, with the intention of developing concrete policy options and potentially beginning preparatory work for legislation before March 2014. After that, progress will be halted by parliamentary elections. The Italian presidency of the EU will take up the issue in the second half of 2014.

Until then, the pressure is on for countries to deliver more if they want to avoid legislation. “Member states have a huge job to do, and they need to do that quickly,” said Geoghegan-Quinn.