MEPs have voted in favour of Horizon Europe and the space and digital programmes at their last meeting before the May elections, although important details, and in particular their budgets, are still to be approved.
The European Commission has proposed a total budget of €161.6 billion for the four programmes: €94.1 billion for R&D in Horizon Europe; €16 billion for space; €9.2 billion to boost Europe’s digital capabilities in the Digital Europe programme; and €42.3 billion for the Connecting Europe infrastructure programme, of which €3 billion would be spent on digital infrastructure.
It will now be up to the new intake of MEPs to negotiate the budget for these programmes – and finally for each member state to have its say (with a right to veto). The current European Parliament was keen to invest €120 billion in Horizon Europe, but the final amount will depend on the appetite of the new assembly of MEPs for public spending. No matter what the final budget will be, Horizon Europe is set to suppport R&D in areas such as climate research, security and healthcare. It will also put in place new types of financial support, such as equity investment, for tech start-ups and ‘disruptive’ innovation. The EU Council already approved the deal on 15 April.
The outline agreement on Horizon Europe clarifies major aspects of the programme, such as the themes for the large scale missions, to include cancer and plastics pollution, and those for industry partnerships. The space programme will establish a new EU agency in Prague to coordinate the EU’s contribution to projects jointly run with the European Space Agency, while Digital Europe will support Europe’s capabilities in supercomputing, artificial intelligence, cyber security, digital skills, and digital transformation. Connecting Europe is an infrastructure programme focused largely on transport, in addition to energy and digital.
The agreements do not include any details of how the four programmes will work together, nor the participation rules for non-EU countries, including the UK after Brexit. All that will be negotiated as part of the EU’s seven-year budget for 2021-2027, over which every EU member state has a veto.
There was however disappointment among the Eastern European countries that the “widening” measures in Horizon Europe, designed to support poorer member states, did not go further. Widening aims to improve the performance of research institutions in poorer member states, such as by enabling them to partner with better-funded counterparts in wealthier countries. Nevertheless, 3.3% of the Horizon Europe budget is reserved for widening, compared to about 1% in Horizon 2020.
On another issue that is a thorn in the side of many R&D organisations in Eastern Europe, Parliament’s original proposal to award researchers in widening countries an additional 25% on top of all personnel costs funded through Horizon Europe, did not survive the negotiations. Researchers in Eastern Europe are generally paid less than those in Western Europe, thereby undermining the principle of equal pay for equal work.