After a marathon 4 days and nights of tense negotiations, leaders of European Union member countries agreed to an economic recovery package for the block. The European Commission forecast earlier this month that the EU economy would shrink by 8.3% this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the member country leaders hashed out a €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) spending package that includes the EU’s budget for 2021–27 plus €750 billion earmarked for pandemic recovery. European Council president Charles Michel heralded the agreement with a one-word tweet: “Deal!”
“It wasn’t easy,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said at a July 21 press conference. “But what matters, to my mind, is the fact that we pulled together in the end and that we all firmly believe that we will also genuinely make a difference with the decisions we have reached today.”
But Horizon Europe, the research program in the budget, took a big hit in the negotiations. In 2018, the European Parliament—the EU’s legislative body—had wanted a budget of €120 billion for the program after the European Commission proposed €94.1 billion. That €94.1 billion figure was slowly reduced in the run-up to negotiations on the budget and recovery package, and it was cut further as governments jockeyed to keep other key parts of the budget while reducing the overall bill. The final deal gives Horizon Europe a total of €81 billion, comprising a €76 billion budget for 2021–27 and an extra €5 billion from the recovery fund.
In the middle of the negotiations, the European Research Council (ERC), which awards research grants, took the unusual step of publishing a statement from its governing body saying that it was “dismayed” by the reduction in research funding. The negotiated budget for Horizon Europe “would mean that, in real terms, there would be no increase to the core research and innovation budget of the EU for the first time ever,” the statement said.
The €750 billion recovery fund includes €10 billion intended to support member states moving away from coal-based industries, down from €40 billion proposed in May.
The 2021–27 EU budget includes money for health programs, an area that the EU has traditionally left to its member countries. COVID-19 has highlighted how that approach can fail, with countries closing borders and stockpiling medicines and personal protective equipment. To help address those issues, RescEU, an initiative to stockpile medical equipment and other emergency assets, will receive €3 billion. A proposed cross-border health program, however, will get only €1.7 billion, as opposed to an initial proposal of €9.4 billion.
The budget also includes €7 billion for defense research; €5 billion for the ITER fusion reactor; and €13 billion for the European Space Agency to support projects such as Copernicus, the Earth observation program. Erasmus+, a program that supports students traveling to a different EU country for training and education, will get €21.2 billion.
In a statement, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), described the deal as “shortsighted.” According to Deketelaere, a key focus for the LERU is increasing the budgets of the ERC and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions research fellowships. Deketelaere called on the European Parliament to reject the budget deal that stood at the time of his statement.
The Parliament must still pass the budget and recovery package, though a veto would be an extreme move given the importance of the recovery fund. Speaking to the body on July 23, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called the budget a “difficult pill to swallow” and admitted that programs like Horizon Europe did not get as much money “as we would have liked.”
“We are not ready to swallow that bitter pill,” replied Parliament member Manfred Weber in the debate that followed, saying that the proposed budget lacks the ambition needed in this time of crisis. The Parliament’s negotiating team said in a July 21 statement that it would “strive to secure improvements, including higher amounts” for health, research, and climate change as it drafts a list of member demands ahead of the final vote later this year.
With only a few months until Horizon Europe is set to launch, national governments and EU bodies will also need to decide how to divide the program’s funds and set participation rules for non-EU countries. The UK’s departure from the union—Brexit—left a large hole in the EU’s finances, but UK-based researchers could still participate in Horizon Europe projects if the UK contributes funds.