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Horizon Europe and the European Research Area: difficult negotiations, high expectations

In uncertain times with anti-EU movements and Brexit negotiations, the EU institutions must make an effort to reach an agreement on Horizon Europe. EUA’s Lidia Borrell-Damian talks about the key amendments that need to be made to the current proposal to ensure that the programme is best designed to benefit Europe’s societies. This editorial was first published on the Athens University of Economics and Business newspaper.

Discussions towards the Ninth EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon Europe, are difficult. Framework Programmes have always come to reality after long and complex discussions among the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. In the case of Horizon Europe, the issues at stake are higher than ever: The Lamy report indicated that a budget of €160 billion for the next Multiannual Financial Framework 2020-2027 would be ideal to meet the EU objective to maintain EU’s competitiveness as a global player. Currently, the most optimistic scenario is that promoted by the European Parliament, proposing a budget of €120 billion. A potential “hard” Brexit would change substantially these financial perspectives.

One thing remains undisputed: the excellence of the EU-funded research through the Framework Programme. However, long-standing, unsolved issues in the EU are playing a role in political discussions, but also within the scientific community. The realisation of the European Research Area (ERA) is one of these. The objectives of the ERA were set in the early 2000s and restructured by the European Commission in 2012 along five main priorities, namely effective national systems, access to research infrastructures, open access to research outcomes, open labour market for researchers, and gender balance. The realisation of the ERA objectives has progressed unevenly across Europe: left in a limbo between the hands of members states and those of R&I stakeholders (universities, research funding bodies, innovation agencies, research infrastructures, etc.), the EU is collectively far from achieving truly effective national systems, open access, an open labour market and gender balance in R&I. We must celebrate that the new Horizon Europe has, for the first time, included the ERA Pillar, cross-cutting all pillars of the programme.

Widening participation across the EU also remains a challenge: EUA’s data indicates that there is a correlation between national higher education investment and success in the Framework Programme, i.e. countries investing more in education get most of the EU funding. EU R&I funds provide unparalleled opportunities to mix researchers and research teams from all over Europe with a “seal of excellence” provided by a peer-review system that is well-recognised by the community of R&I stakeholders. These facts, coupled with the challenge-based approach that Horizon Europe is developing (through the new European Innovation Council and mission-oriented research, but also throughout the entire programme), offer room for an enhanced, wider participation of R&I actors across Europe. A pre-condition for that to happen is that national systems support the research and business communities in building partnerships with excellence in research as their main objective.

Another key aspect in the negotiations leading to Horizon Europe is the synergy between the Framework Programme and the European Investment and Structural Funds (ESIF). Options that range from “ring-fencing” part of ESIF for R&I purposes to the possibility of using ESIF to fund projects with a “seal of excellence” from project evaluation processes are currently being discussed. Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, an extra effort for administrative simplification must be done by the EU institutions. One key advancement would be the recognition of national accounting systems complying with certain common EU rules.

These challenges need to be solved in the coming months. In these uncertain times with worryingly growing anti-EU movements and Brexit negotiations, the EU institutions must make an effort to reach an agreement on Horizon Europe before the end of this legislative term. EUA and thirteen other university organisations have united towards this goal and published a common position in June 2018, followed by key amendments to the Horizon Europe regulation and decision proposals. Better linkages between research, innovation and education; the inclusion of fundamental research in all clusters and missions; more human and societal considerations, were the main underlying principles. We believe that these are essential values that Europe needs to foster further for the benefit of our societies.

Original article.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Lidia Borrell-Damián

Lidia Borrell-Damián is Director of Research and Innovation at the European University Association 

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