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After a tough struggle and more than four days, the 27 heads of state of the European Union agreed on the largest budget and financial package in its history: the next EU general budget for the years 2021 to 2027 amounts to €1.82 trillion. Of that, €750 billion is earmarked for a recovery plan addressing the economic consequences of the corona pandemic. €390 billion is in the form of grants, €360 billion in loans. The so-called “Frugal Four” -the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Austria -pushed through a compromise to reduce the proportion of grants that won’t have to be repaid down from the €500 billion originally planned.

This €750 billion package will be used to finance programs for companies, regions, farmers, and also research. Before the summit, €13.5 billion from this one-off pandemic fund was to be allocated to Horizon Europe, the European Commission’s program for research and education. Ultimately, less than half of that amount ended up on the table: €5 billion. A total of €94.4 billion was budgeted for Horizon Europe before the summit. Following several cuts, the final figure is now €80.9 billion.

EU Parliament has a say in the matter

What’s more, the European Parliament also has a say. This means that the battle for more research funds will in future be fought on three EU fronts: the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council. The European Commission’s unit head for research budget and long-term budget synergies, Paul Webb, tweeted during the negotiations that he found it “disturbing that [Horizon Europe] seems to be the cash cow in the [budget] negotiations.”

University advocates were also up in arms and twittered feverishly over the weekend. They called for more research money to be made available as part of the European pandemic fund. “EU leaders need to urgently wake up and save the bloc’s research budget from a “dismantling” at today’s crunch EU leaders’ summit,” said 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?”

Less money for healthcare

When all is said and done, Horizon Europe’s core program is set to receive €75.9 billion-plus an additional €5 billion from the pandemic recovery fund. The reduction in grants also means a reduction in the budget for programs with significant innovative aspects.

For example, the EU’s Erasmus+ academic exchange program will receive €21.2 billion, some €5 billion less than initially planned. InvestEU, a program to promote private and public investment, was previously funded to the tune of €30.3 billion, of which €3.11 billion was designated for research and innovation projects. Now it looks as if that budget is to be slashed to €6.9 billion.

The EU4Health program has fared no better. In May, €9.4 billion was still on the cards. In the end, only €1.67 billion is to remain. The aim of the program was to help deal with the health consequences of COVID-19 across the EU, rather than each country acting on its own. Previous attempts at initiating an EU health program had failed because individual countries wanted to run their own national health programs without EU interference.

Chagrin and concerns for the future

The European Research Council (ERC) also responded to the cuts on Twitter. “We cannot imagine that EU leaders can agree to this (cut) while at the same time relying on the dedication/skills of Europe’s researchers to fight the ongoing pandemic & be ready to address unexpected future challenges”

Research lobby groups also bemoan the mismatch between the important role of research and innovation during the coronavirus pandemic and budgetary cuts. “We need European leaders who understand what will take us out of the current and future crisis,” twittered Thomas Estermann, Director of Governance, Funding and Public Policy Development at the European University Association.

“A science and innovation-driven recovery is a must for all of Europe. It is particularly in the interests of member states which already invest heavily in R&I,” asserts Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-intensive Universities. Also, Europe’s largest business association, BusinessEurope, expressed concern in a statement: “Cutting Horizon Europe and eliminating solvency instrument [are] wrong places for cuts if we want to have a successful recovery.”