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Research on the chopping block


Monday 19 November 2012

As Thursday's budget summit approaches, there is increasing worry that it will be the EU's most vulnerable programmes rather than its most unpopular that will get the axe.

On Thursday (15 November) a group of MEPs and Nobel Prize laureates in science and medicine called a press conference warning of imminent cuts to research funding in the face of member state insistance on overall cuts to the EU's long-term budget framework for 2014-2020.

There is particular concern over cuts to the Commission's proposed €80 billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The across-the-board cuts could result in that budget being reduced to less than the €54 billion allocated for the previous research funding framework, the 7th framework programme for research.
 
Tim Hunt, who won the Nobel prize for Medicine in 2001, warned that if EU research funding is cut to a pittance in the years 2014-2020 it would mean Europe could lose a generation of young researchers. “If the funding becomes uncertain, people can't see the future, they will drift away to where the money is,” he told the press conference. “And once you've lost them, you've lost them for good.” Hunt was one of 44 Nobel laureates who wrote an open letter to member states last month warning against cuts to the research budget.

But Hunt was speaking to a mostly empty room. The lack of attendance at the press conference in the European Parliament in Brussels was perhaps illustrative of the concern being expressed by the speakers – the budget cuts being demanded by member states are going to disproportionally affect the most "invisible" and least powerful budget lines. Researchers don't have big lobby groups representing them. Farmers, on the other hand, do.

If you asked a random European on the street where EU money is being wasted, chances are you would probably hear something about the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – which represents nearly half of EU expenditure. The Commission has proposed to reform the CAP to have it deliver on environmental goals rather than just being concerned with maintaining European agriculture. But this proposal has so far been diluted by member states in the face of strong lobbying from agricultural interests.

One would think that Northern European countries like the UK and Germany, who are net contributors to the CAP, would be eager to reform the programme to give it more legitimacy with the public. But Germany has not appeared too interested in maintaining the greening proposals of the Commission. And the UK is thought to have a well-known - if not acknowledged – deal with France that it will not significantly touch the CAP as long as France does not touch Britain's rebate.

Thus member states have seemed keen to roughly maintain the existing structure of CAP and have resisted efforts to increase funding for environmental objectives. In the latest compromise draft tabled by Council President Herman Van Rompuy, the greening component under CAP direct payments would be reduced and the rural development budget would be cut by 9.3%. But traditional CAP funding is being largely protected by member states, in the face of Commission attempts to reign it in.

Faustine Defossez of green group EEB said today rural development, "is the only part of the Common Agricultural Policy which represents more than just an income support scheme to those farmers who need it the least." And yet the Van Rumpoy compromise would cut rural development by three times as much as it would cut direct payments to farmers.

The latest compromise text from Van Rompuy would see €30 billion in cuts spread evenly between agriculture and cohesion policy, but this will be furiously resisted by certain member states. Even under the compromise, the amount of cuts to these two policy areas would be 46% of the total cuts, even though they together make up approximately 80% of EU spending.

A smörgåsbord of cuts

It isn't just the research budget that's in danger. Education funding, most importantly the EU's popular Erasmus programme, is looking particularly vulnerable. The programme already faces a €90 million shortfall this year. This prompted an open letter to member states from over 100 European personalities from the worlds of education, art, literature, economics, philosophy and sport warning against cuts. The group, which includes Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar, stressed that the threat to Erasmus comes at a time when youth unemployment for 15 to 24 year olds has increased by half since the start of the crisis. A citizens initiative petition organised by former Erasmus students to save the programme is aiming to attracted one million signatures.

The Commission's proposal to improve European infrastructure, particularly cross-border connections, is also under threat. A compromise put forward by the Cyprus presidency would cut the Connecting Europe Facility funding proposed by the Commission would cut 33% for transport, 17% for energy and 17% for telecommunications.

Development aid has also been a prime target for member states looking for areas to cut. Under Van Rompuy's compromise proposal, the European Development Fund, which is mainly aid for sub-Saharan Africa, would be cut by 11%. External spending for aid overall would be cut by 9%. Eloise Todd of development campaign group ONE observed last week, “EU aid saves lives, has the overwhelming support of the public and, as new research has shown this week, is good for the EU economy too – there is no good reason to cut it."

Member states have also resisted efforts by the Commission to earmark 20% of funds to efforts to adapt to and mitigate climate change. An early compromise put forward by the Cyprus presidency removed the earmarking, but it was reinserted by Council President Herman Van Rompuy in his compromise proposal put forward last week.

Administrative costs, which make up about 6% of EU spending, have been a major focus for member states seeking cuts, prompting a strike last week by EU civil servants.

But the two biggest items of EU expenditure – agriculture and structural/cohesion funds – could survive the brutal budget talks largely unscathed because certain member states are keen to defend them. CAP funds are being closely guarded by agricultural states led by France, and cohesion/structural funds are being closely guarded by new member states led by Poland.

But which member states are willing to stand up and be the champion for research, education and environment? These areas seem to have no member state heros, and this has researchers and campaigners increasingly nervous ahead of Thursday's summit. With agricultural and structural funds being jealously guarded, the full impact of the cuts being demanded by member states may fall on the most vulnerable – but also the most valuable – EU policies.

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