MEPs vote back the European Union’s research money

Hopes have risen that a significant cut to European Union research grants for 2014 can be avoided, following a vote in the European Parliament last week to restore money dropped from the budget by the council of EU government ministers earlier this year – although final agreement will not be reached until mid-November.

Last Wednesday the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly for an EU budget of €142.6 billion (US$197 billion) in commitments for 2014.

While this is some €8.1 billion less than in the current year, reflecting the general austerity approach taken by governments across Europe in recent years, the parliament did move to reverse cuts of €629 million proposed by the Council of Ministers in the summer.

The cuts were in areas that MEPs said were vital to boost the economy in the longer-term, such as the digital agenda, research, entrepreneurship and youth employment measures.

The parliament and the Council of Ministers have joint authority over the level of EU spending and any differences between them have to be settled through a conciliation process, which began last Thursday.

The process can last for 21 days. If agreement is reached the budget will come back to the parliament for a final vote in November and the EU’s final financing arrangements for next year can be tied up well before the year-end.

Hopes for a quick and easy deal

The signs are reasonably encouraging for a quick deal. The difference between the two sides is small – less than €1 billion. In previous years it has been several times greater than that.

In respect of research, moreover, both sides are on record as favouring a continued high level of investment.

Council officials told University World News that the proposed cut to 2014 spending on Horizon 2020 – Europe’s huge research programme – was a relatively small €106 million, and 42% of that was in administrative costs as opposed to the operational budget.

“The council’s approach has been heavily criticised by the parliament but these are not drastic cuts at all,” said an official. However, the official went on to warn that many EU member states were close to legal limits on their budget freedom to increase spending.

At the parliament, an official noted that there was a contradiction between the pledge for a high level of investment in research made by EU heads of state in the summer and the “strange” decision of EU ambassadors to recommend cuts in June.

But it was possible that Germany could be more relaxed about high EU spending now that its federal elections were out of the way, especially if ministers agreed quickly on the payment to Berlin of some €360 million from the EU for flood damage compensation, the official speculated.

What could stall agreement in the conciliation council is the need to consider other pressing financial matters.

An amending budget for 2013 is still required, while negotiations over the multi-annual framework spending programme for 2014-20 may cast a forward shadow over proceedings.