Science|Business: Leaders agree on slimmed-down €80.9B for Horizon Europe
EU heads of state agree on historic budget deal, but partly at the cost of research funding, despite science’s role in fighting COVID-19. Critics say the Horizon budget became a ‘cash cow’ during budget talks.
Science|Business article by Florin Zubașcu
EU leaders agreed on a pared-back budget of €80.9 billion for the Horizon Europe research programme, in the fifth day of a marathon summit to debate the EU’s long-term budget and a post-pandemic economic recovery plan. The final figure – a big blow to research advocates - is significantly lower than a proposal of €94.4 billion put forward by the European Commission in May, as the budget for the R&D programme has been cut multiple times throughout the summit.
The Horizon budget was just one piece of a historically large pie that it took EU leaders a record five days to negotiate. The big picture: a total EU budget from 2021-27 of €1.82 trillion, including €750 billion in a special pandemic recovery fund. After the pandemic funding, the biggest pieces of the budget will be agriculture and cohesion, or development, funding. Paradoxically in the midst of a pandemic, as part of the wrangling leaders also agreed nearly to zero-out a special new EU health programme – but that idea ran afoul of member states’ longstanding desire to keep the EU institutions from meddling too much in their national health programmes.
Before the budget summit started on Friday, Horizon Europe was slated to get a €13.5 billion boost from this one-time pandemic fund, but the final budget is bringing that figure down to only €5 billion. According to the final EU Council document, the core budget of Horizon Europe will remain at the pre-summit level of €75.9 billion (in 2018 prices) – but even that represented a cut from the European Commission’s May plan of €80.9 billion.
Despite the drama over the weekend – including the first in-person EU summit since the pandemic began – the budget story is not quite finished. Next, the European Parliament will have a say; and it is usually far more supportive of research funding than the national finance ministers calling the shots behind-the-scenes this weekend. That means the fight for more research money will now move into the Parliamentary committees, setting the scene for an epic show-down between the three biggest EU institutions: Parliament, Commission and Council.
Throughout the summit, the Horizon budget was cut a couple of times, first on Saturday and then once more on Monday. The changes prompted Paul Webb, the Commission’s head of unit for research budget and long-term budget synergies, to say on Twitter that he finds it “disturbing that [Horizon Europe] seems to be the cash cow in the [budget] negotiations.” It is rare for Commission officials to speak out in the midst of Council negotiations – but he has been joined in the past few days by an ever-louder chorus of condemnation from MEPs, the European Research Council’s governing board, and other research advocates.
The new EU budget gives more ground to Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden, who are pushing for fewer grants and more loans in the new pandemic recovery fund. Since Friday, EU leaders argued over the size of the fund, as well as over the rules to disburse the money across member states. Research funding, mostly in the Horizon Europe programme, is just one piece of that overall budget dispute – but became an increasingly visible one as the hours dragged on.
As EU budget negotiations entered a fourth day in Brussels advocates mounted an online campaign to defend the research and innovation programme.
University and business advocates took to Twitter over the weekend to call for more research funding as part of Europe’s pandemic response. EU leaders need to urgently “wake up” and save the bloc’s research budget from a “dismantling” at today’s crunch EU leaders’ summit, says Marta Agostinho, coordinator of EU-Life, an alliance of 14 life science research institutes. “In a time when politicians and citizens look to science to find the miraculous solution to the COVID-19 crisis, the top leaders decide to cut the research budget – how insane is this?” she said.
In real terms, the final Horizon Europe budget is very close to funding levels of its predecessor if the UK’s contribution to the Horizon 2020 budget is also taken into account. According to figures that exclude the UK, presented by the commission, the EU allocated €67.06 billion to Horizon 2020 (in 2018 prices). The total budget of the programme, if Britain’s contribution from 2014 is included, is €76.26 billion.
In the end, the core programme of Horizon Europe will be allocated €75.9 billion and a €5 billion boost from the pandemic recovery fund.
The budget for EU’s academic exchange programme Erasmus+ will be allocated €21.2 billion, about €5 billion less than initially planned. InvestEU, a scheme to boost private and public investment, could see its budget cut to €6.9 billion. In the European Commission's budget plan, the programme was slated to get €30.3 billion, of which €3.11 billion was ring fenced for research and innovation projects.
The EU4Health programme has been cut down to €1.67 billion, from €9.4 billion proposed in May. The Commission proposed the programme to help cope with the health consequences of COVID-19 on an EU-wide basis, rather than country-by-country. Past attempts to create a sizeable EU health programme had run afoul of member states’ insistence that the EU executive keep its nose out of their national health programmes – but only a few weeks ago it looked like COVID-19 had shifted the political momentum in the Commission’s favour.
This story was updated 08:55 CET, 21 July.
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