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November 07, 2014

Horizon 2020: The next phase

by Laura Greenhalgh

The European Commission is well into the planning phase for the next two years of Horizon 2020. Laura Greenhalgh brings you her analysis of the preliminary outlines of the 2016-17 work programmes.

Whilst pillar one remains relatively similar to 2014-15, many areas under pillars two and three have a change in priorities, including three new focus areas (see article in Research Europe). The plans are still to be finalised into official work programmes, but they give a good indication of where Horizon 2020 is heading. Here’s what’s in store!

 

Pillar 1 – Excellent Science

European Research Council

Future and Emerging Technologies

Marie Skłowdowska-Curie Actions

Research infrastructure

Pillar II – Industrial Leadership

Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies - ICT

Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies - Nanotech, materials and processing

Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies - Space

Access to Risk Finance Innovation in SMEs 

Pillar III - Societal Challenges

Health, demographic change and wellbeing

Food security and maritime

Secure, clean and efficient energy

Smart, green and integrated transport

Climate action, resources and raw materials

Inclusive societies

Secure societies

 

European Research Council – tbc

The ERC is not covered under the Commission’s strategic planning exercise, since its agenda is established separately by the ERC Scientific Council. It is highly likely that the four funding streams from 2015—covering Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Proof of Concept grants—will be continued as they stand, with the number and timing of calls still to be determined.

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Future and Emerging Technologies (download)

The 2016-17 work programme for the Future and Emerging Technologies is expected to consist of three competitive calls: FET-Open, FET-Proactive, and a third call specific to high performance computing.

The greatest change will be in the FET Proactive call, which supports the creation of research clusters on “out-of-the-box” innovations. This will fund a new set of topics compared to the first work programme, which covered modelling systems, robots and quantum technologies. Although these topics have not yet been chosen, they will be picked from suggestions made in an April public consultation, which suggested bio-mimicry, nano-fluidics, innovation modelling and the impact of technologies on daily life.

A separate FET Proactive call for supercomputing is envisaged to push forward the Commission’s High Performance Computing plan, published in 2012. This will focus on high-productivity programming, exascale computer systems and strategies to cope with huge quantities of data.

FET-Open will continue to fund early-stage, high-risk research on any projects—but will be looking to fund “a more diverse portfolio” of projects than it has before, according to the plan. The Commission also intends to boost flexibility to ensure that the duration, size and complexity of projects are fit-for-purpose. A more flexible programme is also expected to increase the variety of participants and include more young researchers and SMEs.

For 2016-17, the FET programme will tackle ethical questions on multidisciplinary research through the social sciences, humanities and the behavioural sciences and funding public engagement. It will also provide funding for the next phase of the FET Flagship programmes on graphene and human brain research, as outlined in the latest update published in September.

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Marie Skłowdowska-Curie Actions (download)

The start of the Marie Skłowdowska-Curie Actions under Horizon 2020 has been seen as a success, meaning that the programme will continue in the same vein for 2016-17: holding yearly calls for each of the four main exchange programmes.

These are: Innovative Training Networks to support early-stage researchers within the first four years of their career; Individual Fellowships for more experienced researchers; a RISE call for academic exchanges between individuals from at least three countries; and the COFUND action, which funds exchanges in conjunction with national research councils.

A big priority will be improving the participation of female researchers in the programme, as a way to improve the gender disparity within research. 

In addition, the RISE call will be used to push for more participation from non-EU countries as part of a general move to better recognise the value of international cooperation. “Continuing the MSCA development of international networks and teams can open new opportunities for further collaboration, broaden the outlook of researchers, and strongly contribute to the development of their personal and professional competences,” states the paper.

Meanwhile, the fifth call in this area (NIGHT), which covers European Researchers’ Night activities for public outreach, will only be held once in 2016 to cover two-years worth of activities.

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Research infrastructure (download)

Funding sustainability, better links with industry, improved trans-national access and open access to data are the main priorities for research infrastructure in 2016-17—and the Commission plans to address this through five specific calls.

The first call will fund existing facilities identified under the Esfri roadmap, but with a “new emphasis on long-term sustainability and efficient operation”. The call will also support infrastructure projects looking to get onto the ESFRI roadmap in 2016, as well as funding design studies for new infrastructure. Projects will be allocated funds to build access for researchers in other countries.

A second call on integrating infrastructure will fund activities to increase innovation output, promote open data practices, and widen the number of users, particularly in developing countries.

Through a specific e-infrastructure call, the Commission intends to support high-speed networks and supercomputing initiatives to better connect researchers to data, and to each other.

The support to innovation call will fund pre-commercial and public procurement to increase the use of research infrastructure by industry. It will also fund pan-European R&D platforms to link facilities in different countries that are relevant to the same technologies, and improve access for small businesses.

A final call on policy support actions will fund the development of a harmonised RI evaluation strategy, which can be used by member states to target their infrastructure funding. This needs to be done because member states have a “striking lack of common criteria” for making such funding decisions, reports the paper.

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Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies – ICT (download)

The Commission is continuing to be progressive in its plans for ICT research, and focus on fields where true progress is happening rather than technologies that have already been done. A significant focus for the 2016-17 work programme will be the Internet of Things—which has been designated one of nine focus areas to be tackled by the societal challenges and enabling technologies sections of Horizon 2020.

Money will be assigned for large-scale demonstration projects on the Internet of Things, to progress the use of the technology in real-life settings. The Internet of Things involves connecting everyday objects to the internet, and Horizon 2020 will focus on clothes, energy systems, transport vehicles and hospital operating rooms in 2016-17, amongst others.

In addition, one major ICT call per year is envisaged in 2016 and 2017 to cover the rest of the Commission’s priorities in this field. This will fund R&D and product development for cloud computing, 5G internet development, big data and gaming software, robotics and autonomous systems and the development of micro- and nano-electronics and photonics for hardware.

In the last work programme, the Commission funded specific calls for cooperation with Brazil and Japan in ICT—and these two countries will remain a priority for cooperation, with the addition of Korea as a third target.

A specific call for small businesses, through the SME instrument, and the Fast-Track to Innovation pilot for close-to-market research will be used to further boost commercial R&D. Research on data privacy and security, and social studies on people’s attitudes and acceptance of new technologies will also be funded.

Meanwhile, the work programme will assign two-year budgets for several large-scale industry partnerships. These include the four public-private partnerships on 5G communications, Robotics, Photonics and Factories of the Future, as well as the Ecsel joint-technology initiative on electronic components and systems.

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Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies - Nanotech, materials and processing (download)

The main focus in 2016-17 will be to support EU manufacturing, following a more widespread call from member states and the Commission to promote the re-industrialisation of Europe. This will involve an even greater focus on getting the results of research into industrial processes. “With the results of previous research projects becoming available, now is the time to devote effort to the innovation part of the programme,” states the document.

Industrial development funded by this call must be environmentally friendly and sustainable, according to the Commission, meaning activities in this work programme will be geared towards a cross-cutting focus area entitled: Industry 2020 and the Circular Economy. In practice, this means much of the 2016-17 funding will be spent on three relevant public-private partnerships, entitled Factories of future, Sustainable Process Industries (Spire), and Energy-Efficient buildings. These are intended to modernise EU industries, and also develop the computerisation of manufacturing through smart devices, cyber-physical systems, and IT infrastructure.

The plan hints the EU may be considering an additional initiative in the area of 3D printing (also called Additive Manufacturing in the document). This is most likely to be a public-private partnership, as the EU seeks to get a foot in the door with international emerging companies in this field.

Aside from this, a single call will cover R&D and innovation in nanotechnology, advanced materials, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing and processing. Industries that are likely to receive particular attention are the healthcare sector for nanomedicines, energy production, biotechnology and feedstock resources, as well as chemicals and agriculture.

The work programme will also fund SSH research to look at the development and acceptance of nanotechnologies, risk assessments for new technologies and governance and ethics for synthetic biology.

Like others, this work programme acknowledges the need to raise international participation in Horizon 2020—but says that this needs to be done with caution for near-market projects. “At Technology Readiness Levels up to 5, international cooperation would be welcome, to create EU added value, while for higher Technology Readiness Levels this has to be decided on a case by case basis against a background of increasing competition and different regulatory settings,” recommends the document.

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Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies – Space (download)

The Commission plans to keep the same structure for space funding throughout the duration of Horizon 2020, meaning the 2016-17 programme will mirror the first two years of the programme. This will centre on four calls: applications for satellite navigation, earth observation, protection in and from space, and industrial competitiveness.

The first two calls will focus on developing ways to make money from the EU’s expensive flagship space projects, Galileo and EGNOS (for satellite navigation) and Copernicus (which carries out Earth observation for weather prediction and other uses). “These space programmes will reach full operational capacity in the next years and European service industry and end users should be in a position to reap the benefits of the large public investments made over several decades,” states the 2016-17 plan. The third call will tackle the hot topic of space debris and its threats to satellites and exploration.

The work programme will also continue the Strategic Research Clusters on electric propulsion and space robotics, launched under the last programme. Under these new initiatives introduced under Horizon 2020, the Commission first launches a call for a consortium to establish a plan for further research funding in the relevant area, which is then implemented through further calls.

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Access to Risk Finance (download)

One of the Commission’s aims for this 2016-17 work programme is to increase the availability of financing for small businesses carrying out R&D, which often struggle to convince banks to support them at less-than-extortionate premiums. Another is to improve finance terms for medium and large companies, which the Commission says is usually fee-heavy and lacks the flexible or length of term to support investment in research staff.

The Commission hopes to do this by pursuing all the main Horizon 2020 finance measures launched in 2014, which are run by the European Investment Bank and the European Investment Fund. These will be adapted to give more direct loans to larger firms and more intermediated loans to SMEs and midcaps, and to boost equity finances for all companies.

The Commission says it also intends to try and get a greater number of national banks involved in the initiatives, to ensure businesses from all member states have access to decent finance.

The biggest change to the work programme in 2016-17 is that the Commission is considering pilot initiatives to increase crowdfunding for R&D, as well as philanthropic donations to support venture capital. In a communication in March, the Commission said crowdfunding could offer a flexible way to finance R&D, and also increase public engagement in science and research. Meanwhile, the League of European Research Universities has advised that universities should encourage philanthropy to protect rare fields of research and increase science funding.

Other pilots that could be trialled in 2016-17 include a fund to provide finance to young entrepreneurs. Existing pilots that finance technology transfer and innovative ICT firms are also likely to be scaled up for the next two-year phase of the programme.

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Innovation in SMEs (download)

Whilst the budget assigned to this particular area is small, the Innovation in SMEs work programme sets out plans for all activities relating to small businesses, many of which are financed by other parts of the programme.

A total of 7 per cent of the combined budget for the societal challenges and industrial leadership pillar will be spent on funding small businesses through the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument, and in 2016-17 the Commission will focus on developing the third phase of this instrument.

Phase 3 supports the commercialisation of products, by providing business mentoring, legal advice and access to finance. This follows Phase 1, which provides up to €50,000 for a six-month feasibility study, and Phase 2, which pays up to €2.5 million for demonstration and piloting. This instrument has so far proved extremely popular, with a success rate of only 6 per cent in the first call.

The Commission is considering piloting an SME innovation fellowship, which would be run in conjunction with the Marie Curie-Skłodowska Actions for researcher exchanges. This would pay for SMEs to hire researchers that can help them develop their innovations. This would include scientists and technology experts, but also researchers in design, arts and the media to develop creative aspects of the business.  

Another idea is to provide grants for SMEs to help civil society organisations launch campaigns and develop new models for social innovation.

Meanwhile, the Commission sees a need to push European businesses to capitalise on innovation ideas and capacity in emerging economies—and says specific measures will be developed for this. 

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SC1: Health, demographic change and wellbeing (download)

Ageing R&D gets a big lift in priority under this work programme, to add to the focus on personalised health care in 2014-15. To this end, all activities under the health challenge for 2016-17 look likely to be funded under one single call, called “Promoting healthy ageing and personalised healthcare”.

This will contain five sub-categories: ageing, translational molecular research, population health, infectious diseases and ICT for health.

Funding under ageing will cover research to understand the ageing process and its effects. As well as biological markers of ageing, this will include social science research to find out what older people need to remain independent, mobile and healthy, and develop technologies to help them do this. It will also look at how lifestyle and medical interventions in children can improve health in old age.

Under translational molecular research, the work programme will fund population-level profiling of genetic phenotypes and clinical outcomes of disease, to develop treatments for specific sub-populations. This is part of the Commission’s plan to develop personalised medicine, whereby patients are given more targeted treatments based on their genetic make-up—and will feed into a European strategy for personalised medicine, a policy document under development by the Commission.

The third category, on population health, will focus on the non-communicable diseases of mental health disorders and obesity, to develop both treatments and prevention strategies. Meanwhile, research into infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV will be funded under the fourth category, which looks to develop vaccines and treatments, as well as ways to reduce exposure.

The final focus, on ICT for health, will fund R&D to give patients more options to monitor and control their health and treatment strategies, as well as helping national health systems to integrate huge amounts of patient data and monitor changes in public health care.

Whilst personalised health care no longer forms an overarching focus for this phase of Horizon 2020 (see RE article), research under this challenge will contribute to the goals of progressing the Internet of Things and Digital Security.

The call will allocate funding via several industry initiatives in the health area. The Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 will focus on developing the personalised healthcare industry in 2016-17. The Active and Assisted Living Joint Programme will support close-to-market projects to tackle ageing. 

Meanwhile, the Commission will target the United States as its priority for international cooperation in healthcare on specific subjects, including rare and infectious diseases and ICT programmes.

It will also spend money on the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials 2 partnership, which funds trials in Africa.

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SC2: Food security, sustainable agriculture and forestry, marine and maritime and inland water research and the bioeconomy (download)

This challenge builds on the themes of sustainable food production and ocean development (called “blue growth”), which were focus areas for 2014-15 and will continue to be so for the next two-year phase.

A further two calls will cover food production in rural territories, and improving the bio-industries.

The food security call, a new priority that wasn’t in the last work programme, will cover R&D to make food production techniques and industries more resilient against the damaging effects of climate change and natural disasters. It will also fund projects to integrate information on consumer choices into food production systems, and develop recycling.

A blue growth call will fund the development and piloting of ocean floating platforms for energy and food production, large-scale algae biomass refineries, and deep sea mining. It will also tackle the problem of marine pollution, and fund projects on ocean monitoring and observation.

The third call, called Rural Renaissance, is intended to develop farming, fisheries and environmental protection in less developed or coastal areas within Europe—meaning there will be a big link with the Structural funds, allocated to regions for economic development. The Horizon 2020 funds will be used to develop infrastructure and ICT systems for rural areas, as well as funding projects that seek to improve the human capital and skills to boost industry.

Meanwhile, a fourth section will target the development of the biomass industry for energy production, which includes social science research to ensure this development incorporates population preferences and perception of risks. This funding will mostly be allocated via the joint technology initiative on the bio-based industries.

Some projects under this work programme will link with Societal challenge 3 and the focus area of smart cities and energy efficiency; and Societal challenge 5, focusing on Industry 2020 and the circular economy.

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SC3: Secure, clean and efficient energy (download)

This work programme retains the three-call structure of the first two years, covering the Horizon 2020 focus areas of energy efficiency, low-carbon technologies and building smart cities. However, a new priority within these three calls is the security and affordability of energy—to reflect the political environment—as well as giving more say to consumers in directing energy production.

Under the energy efficiency call, the Commission will fund projects in smart energy production, which involves the use of ICT programmes to make grids and widespread systems more efficient, and give individuals better control over energy use. It will also fund R&D related to construction and the energy-efficiency of buildings, low-carbon sources of energy for heating and cooling, and developing new financial models and processes for energy production.

The competitive low-carbon energy call will fund R&D on renewable technologies and biofuels, smart energy grids and new modelling systems for national and international energy production.

The smart cities call will fund research into business models for energy-efficient urban areas, to include data security, and continue to support the demonstration projects, where technologies are tested in one city for wider roll out.

This challenge links heavily with the priorities of the Strategy Energy Technology Plan for 2016-17, which are: developing active consumer involvement and improving efficiency and optimisation to make energy production cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

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SC4: Smart, green and integrated transport (download)

In the 2014-15 work programme, the Mobility for Growth call was the main focus area, allocating funding for R&D to develop technologies for safe, efficient and environmentally friendly transport.

This focus will continue for the next work programme: but instead of opting for purely technological developments, a lot more focus will be placed on social science studies, to consider the possibilities for behavioural change and to ensure that technologies developed reflect users’ needs.

A new focus area on automated road transport has been added, and this will be a major call in 2016-17. This call will cover all aspects of R&D needed to develop self-driving cars, including satellite navigation technologies, component development, traffic management models and human-machine interactions.

Alongside this, the Commission will fund a call for the public-private partnership on European Green Vehicles to develop better technologies for electric cars, and increase their use.

The call on Mobility for Growth will be continued, to fund research across the major forms of transport: air, rail, road and water. These will be structure to fit around the main joint technology initiatives of Clean Sky 2, Sesar, Shift2Rail and Fuel Cells and Hydrogen, to avoid overlap.

Meanwhile, a challenge prize called The Cleanest Engine is envisaged, as a competition to reduce the amount of pollution emitted from car and van engines. “The prize aims at spurring the development of engine and powertrain technologies leading to vehicles with the lowest attainable noxious emissions in real life driving conditions,” states the plan.

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SC5: Climate action, resources and raw materials (download)

This challenge covers a wide range of topics related to climate change, ranging from pollution reduction to environmentally friendly innovation and recycling, as well as water conservation and cultural heritage research. In 2016-17, the Commission says it wants to fund R&D that takes a more systemic approach to solving the problems of climate change: meaning it is looking for proposals that cover not only new technologies, but also business models, financing options, governance structures and behavioural change.

Although the organisation of specific calls is not yet clear, a major call looks likely to focus on six priorities. The first of these, on raw materials, will fund R&D at lower technology levels to improve exploration, extraction, processing and recycling. It will also support pilot facilities for the production of primary and secondary resources.

The second topic, climate services, will fund projects to develop specific tools, products and services to mitigate against the effects of climate change and strengthen the market for renewable energy. A third topic, nature-based solutions, will fund land-use planning projects to protect vulnerable areas, including coastal regions and forest. 

Under an earth observation stream, the Commission hopes to develop an open market for observational data from satellites, and to attract companies to make use of the large amount of data expected from the EU’s flagship satellite programme Copernicus.

A funding stream on cultural heritage will support archaeology, history, anthropology, geography, and economics projects to advance the profitability of European cultural sites, and explore the possibilities for innovation related to cultural heritage. Meanwhile, a sixth topic will fund activities related to water conservation.

Overall, the Commission hopes that research under this Societal Challenge will help develop an approach to sustainable production called the circular economy, and trigger changes in consumption patterns—which has been designated an overall focus area for Horizon 2020.

It is also designed to tie in with efforts in other areas towards smart cities, blue growth and sustainable food security.

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SC6: Inclusive societies (download)

This challenge, the major SSH domain of Horizon 2020, is intended to address the major challenges to European society: unemployment, poverty, the innovation divide and immigration, as well as security threats and terrorism. It will fund three calls for 2016-17: Co-creation for growth; Reversing inequalities; and Engaging together globally.

The Co-creation for growth call ties together research that is about the exchange of information and ideas between different parts of society. This will include education research to pilot new ways of learning, and studies to examine the involvement of citizens in policymaking. It will also promote the management and use of cultural heritage, by supporting museums and the digitalisation of collections, for example.

A specific stream of research will look at evidence-based policymaking, and the governance of the European Research Area, as well as developing policies to address Science 2.0.

The Reversing inequalities call will look at understanding and reducing differences between groups of society, by studying social unrest, extremism and xenophobic behaviour. It will also promote inclusive innovation, to involve the public more in areas of research relevant to their lives, such as healthcare.

Meanwhile, Engaging together globally will study foreign policy strategies with the aim of maximising the EU’s influence on worldwide politics, and also study security policies, migration pattern and international cooperation in research.

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SC7: Secure societies (download)

This challenge aims to fight crime and terrorism, improve security and protect people and infrastructure. Under the 2014-15 work programme, a total of four calls were run: and the latest plan suggests these will be continued, with an additional four added to take the total to eight calls in 2016-17.

The first call to be continued, on disaster management, would fund R&D to protect against natural disasters as well as chemical, biological and explosive attacks on people and buildings. This could also include food security research, such as R&D on tracing food contaminants, protecting the Arctic and Antarctic regions from damage; and projects on risk assessment.

The second call, Fight against crime and terrorism, would include projects to tackle cyber-crime, trafficking and preventing radicalism and recruitment to terrorist organisations, as well as forensics research.

The call on Border and external security would continue to fund research on policing national boundaries, including enhanced measures to check electronic travel documents and improving maritime surveillance.

Meanwhile, the call on Digital Security—a specific focus area for the whole programme—would seek to protect ICT systems from cyber attacks, including those in the areas of health, energy systems and transport, as well as focusing on protection for SMEs.

Four additional calls are suggested on the cyber and physical security of European infrastructure and enterprises; privacy; the ethics of data security, and horizontal actions to improve pan-European coordination. The first of these would focus on the defence of public organisations, law enforcement agencies and large enterprises, whilst privacy issues of Big Data and the Internet of Things would also be tackled. 

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January 23, 2014

Reform is not just a Tory issue

by Laura Greenhalgh

Reluctance to engage with the British conservatives in a debate over EU reform could represent a missed opportunity, for Europe and for science.

Last week, I attended a conference in London hosted by the think tank Open Europe. Billed as a Pan-European conference for EU reform, the event was dominated by conservative ministers from the UK and a handful from other EU member states.

The event began with a speech from UK chancellor George Osborne that epitomised the black and white nature under which the discussion on reform was initiated last January: “Reform, or we’re out,” he implied. But beyond this, I observed a nuanced debate between pro-reformers about the benefits and constraints of the EU and how it might do things better, with the majority supporting the UK staying in the EU.

To set things straight: I am not a conservative, I support the fundamental premise of the EU as an instrument of peace, economic progress and political reform, and I do not want the UK to leave the Union.

But I also see nothing wrong with a widely engaging debate on the changes—big or small—that could make the EU better, involving all political parties, even if the premise on which the debate was initiated might have ruffled some feathers. 

Europe is not struggling because it is anti-competitive and anti-science, as George Osborne claimed, but because of the banking crisis. And whilst European research is not to blame, it has certainly felt the effects: as many as 11 member states have seen a decrease in their higher education funding of more than 5 per cent since 2008, according to the European University Association.

Some of the changes being proposed by the reform campaign could benefit researchers significantly. At the London conference, participants played a game to reform the EU budget, suggesting how the allocations under the €1 trillion seven-year spending plan might be improved. The breakdown that won the prize of ‘best budget’ allocated nearly all of the money to cross-border R&D spending, with the remainder for cohesion in the poorest regions.

Such a swinging shift is unrealistic. But the underlying message is clear: many reformers want more spending on R&D.

Another major facet of the conservative’s agenda is “more power to member states”: allowing member states to make their own decisions on issues they are best placed to rule on. At present, MEPs and Brussels officials spend months ruling on directives that are then torn apart by opt-outs and alterations at the national level. So why not decide which issues should be European, and which should be national, without this messy in-between?

A debate about what constitutes a national issue and what constitutes an EU one could bring some much-needed clarity to Europe’s policymaking. What’s more, by leaving national issues at the national level, it would allow the Brussels institutions more time to focus on real Pan-European agendas—including the European Research Area.

Furthermore, engaging the conservatives in debate would allow their opponents to address a fundamental error in the right-wing argument: that is, trying to evaluate the EU against a perfect model of democracy, which national governments are even further from achieving. Idealism, rather than realism, has proved to be a highly effective weapon in the rhetoric heralding the failings of the EU, and it must be countered.

Some industries have grasped the opportunity to engage, with the British Bankers’ Association calling for closer ties with Brussels, and the UK car industry voicing concern about an EU exit. And there have been murmurings amongst scientists and research organisations about the potential damage to Britain if it leaves the EU, given that the UK is one of the most successful recipients of European research funding.

But some politicians from outside the conservatives seem scared to join in the debate, for fear of being branded a Eurosceptic. Others are worried about agreeing to alterations to the EU treaties, in case they are opening the door to the abyss. And the remainder seem to be treating the conservative’s campaign as they would a naughty child: ignore them, and they might shut up.

But let’s have some faith in the strengths of the European project, and the widespread support on its fundamental reason for existing. Let’s start a positive and forward-looking discussion on the Europe that we want to see in 20 years time. The EU is going to change regardless—so let’s not leave it only to the conservatives to determine how. 

October 29, 2012

"Dalligate" and Horizon 2020: the EU could lose more than a commissioner

by Laura Greenhalgh

Amid allegations of bribery and threats of legal action against the European Commission, the controversy surrounding the former EU health commissioner from Malta, John Dalli, has become an unwelcome distraction for budget discussions in Brussels.

“Dalligate” began last week when, on Tuesday (16 October), the European Commission released an unexpected statement that: “Commissioner John Dalli has today announced his resignation as a member of the Commission, with immediate effect.”

According to the statement, Dalli “decided to resign in order to be able to defend his reputation and that of the Commission”, following an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF. The Commission said the investigation found that a Maltese entrepreneur had approached a tobacco company, Swedish Match, to request payment in exchange for influence on tobacco legislation being prepared by Dalli. “The OLAF report did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli but did consider that he was aware of these events,” said the Commission.

The following morning, Dalli contradicted the Commission’s version of events in a recorded interview. Dalli said the Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, had asked for his resignation in a face-to-face meeting on Tuesday evening. However, Dalli “refuted categorically” the allegation that he was aware of the activities between his associate and the tobacco industry. He later wrote to European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to say he had been deprived of his right to defend himself, as he was only given 30 minutes to resign and had not been permitted to read the OLAF report.

According to Dalli, his departure may halt progress on the Tobacco Products Directive to introduce stricter requirements on cigarette packaging and flavouring, which was approaching its final stages but may now have to begin again in 2015. The mystery surrounding these events has been further fuelled by the fact that OLAF’s report has not been made public, and also by a report from three anti-tobacco lobbying agencies of targeted break-ins at their offices in Brussels within 48 hours of the resignation.

But perhaps most concerning for those in the EU capital is the announcement by Dalli at a press conference on 24 October that he may pursue legal action. “From Mr Barroso, I want vindication of my name,” said Dalli, who said he will be forming a plan of action including legal recourse.

So what is “Dalligate” likely to mean for policymakers approaching the final stages of crucial budget negotiations in Brussels?

The last time Brussels was embroiled in a scandal of this scale was over a decade ago when, in 1999, allegations of corruption against the Commission were launched by a whistle-blower’s report. The claims focused particularly on former French prime minister, Edith Cresson, who had been in office as the EU research commissioner since 1995.

Following a report by a Committee of Independent Experts, the entire Commission resigned en masse. Cresson was later charged with fraud, forgery and abuse of confidence by Belgian authorities, and in 2006, the European Court of Justice declared that Cresson acted in breach of her obligations as a European commissioner by employing a friend on the Commission’s payroll.

The Cresson affair indicates policymakers are unlikely to emerge unscathed from this latest episode. Although the Commission has confirmed that there is no evidence that Dalli acted illegally, it is well known that the tenure of staff is largely determined by political trust and respect. Barroso’s rapid eviction of Dalli may have been an attempt to avoid a repeat of mass resignation. But Dalli’s unwillingness to go quietly means this plan may backfire, and allegations of misconduct within the Commission could have disastrous consequences.

The scandal could not have come at a worse time for the Commission, as it attempts to defend its proposals for spending from 2014 to 2020 against cuts being suggested by member states. The Horizon 2020 research budget, which the Commission has set at €80 billion, is under threat from countries arguing it needs to be reduced to €60bn in line with austerity.

The outcome of this debate is largely in the hands of the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, but the Commission must be on hand to support its proposal and advocate spending for research. It must also be seen as a trusted partner by ministers, to warrant an increase in spending as national budgets are being cut across the board.

The events of “Dalligate” mean the Commission could now be defending itself and its budget against the Council and Parliament on two fronts—a political and a moral one. This could prove costly, both for the future of the Commission and for the future of research in Europe.

Laura Greenhalgh

Laura Greenhalgh

Laura Greenhalgh is a reporter for Research Fortnight and Research Europe.