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Roadblocks ahead

2014 could prove to be an exceptionally tough year for the European project

December should, with luck, see the European Commission issue calls for proposals for a large tranche of Horizon 2020 workstreams. It will be the culmination of a bumpy but ultimately satisfactory process that has shaped the EU’s main research programme for 2014-20.

The calls will be a rare bright patch during an otherwise turbulent period in Europe’s development. As we reach the end of 2013, many commentators are likely to repeat the point that this is not 1913. And of course it isn’t. Nonetheless, dark clouds are gathering.

Several years since the Euro crisis broke, for example, there remains a huge unresolved problem regarding the different monetary and fiscal needs of northern and southern Europe. As Germany works itself through coalition talks dominated by domestic issues, there are clear signs that the ‘southern majority’ on the European Central Bank’s committees is ready to break with German-style fiscal orthodoxy and do something to address creeping deflation in the south. The consequences of such a break won’t be pretty.

Then there are the persistent leadership problems at the EU institutions. The revamped, triple presidency of José Manuel Barroso (Commission) Herman Van Rompuy (European Council) and Martin Schulz (European Parliament) has failed to convince the people of Europe or the rest of the world that the EU is becoming a more coherent entity.

The Parliament has begun to make use of the expanded powers it was granted under the Lisbon Treaty, without quite managing to convey the impression that it genuinely represents the voice of the people. The physical surroundings and rituals of the Parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg are as grand as those of any legislature in the world.

But it wouldn’t matter if they were meeting in a cave: what matters in a legislature is perceived legitimacy. Parliaments from Iceland’s Althing to the United States Congress have enjoyed this, but the European Parliament does not. When crucial elections are held for its 736 members next May, they will be fought on national issues, not European ones, and the results are already in: there will be an influx of anti-European populists and naysayers of every stripe. The worry here is that, disappointing though the post-Lisbon performance of the Parliament has been, this may be as good as it gets.

Changes are also due at the Commission in 2014, with all 27 commissioners set to be replaced. Ireland’s Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation and science, has been confident and consistent in her presentation of the Commission’s plan for an Innovation Union, but she hasn’t engaged energetically enough with the plan’s weaknesses or conceived of anything original to add to the Commission’s innovation mantra.

The next commissioner will have to ensure that Horizon 2020 is a sufficiently genuine break with the past—and start planning for what follows. But those tasks will be small beer, indeed, against the wider political challenges that the EU will face during 2014.