Concern as Brussels ‘borrows’ €400 million from Horizon Europe

EU officials want to take money for Chips Act, but government purseholders have ruled out using unspent project funds to replace it

March 25, 2022
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European Commission plans to temporarily cut the budget of Horizon Europe by €400 million (£333 million) to help fund a drive to bolster the development of semiconductors across the continent have caused concern.

The €95.5 billion research programme already had a €1.3 billion pot to support electronic component development and manufacturing, but that will be beefed up to €2.9 billion and rebranded to focus on microchips.

To fund this, officials want to cut the overall Horizon Europe budget by €400 million and to backfill that by not returning unspent funds from incomplete European Union research projects to EU governments.

“The idea that a €400 million cut to Horizon can be repaid by decommitments is a creative idea, but it is very doubtful that it will work,” said Christian Ehler, an MEP who leads the European Parliament’s work on Horizon.

EU governments said on 15 March that the only unspent funds the bloc should not return to its member countries were those agreed under the seven-year budget for 2021‑27. Mr Ehler said the cut should not happen until governments changed their position.

“It has to be a common understanding between the institutions that the cut can only happen to the extent to which the [European] Council accepts correcting the cut by decommitments. No decommitments, no cuts,” he said.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said it was important to send strong signals to officials that Horizon could not be used as a fund for passing political priorities.

As well as funding research and development, the “Chips Act” will try to build up semiconductor production capacities within the EU, which Professor Deketelaere said meant that the cut amounted to a diversion of money earmarked for research.

“If we allow other actors to think that that money can be used for something else outside the research and innovation field, then this is absolutely problematic,” he said, referring to the Horizon budget.

“If Mr Breton absolutely wants to have his European Chips Act, fine; but he has to pay for it himself. Perhaps he can go to the European Defence Agency and ask for the money there,” Professor Deketelaere added, referring to Thierry Breton, the French European commissioner, who leads on EU digitisation efforts.

The assumption that €400 million of project funding would go unspent was unfortunate when the Horizon programme was so competitive, said Joep Roet, a policy adviser for the Netherlands House of Education and Research, which monitors European policy developments.

“What does it say about the state of Horizon budget implementation, with its low success rates, if the commission can freely draw from the unspent budgets? Even if the €400 million is likely to return, isn’t it sad that this is even possible?” he said.

A Commission spokesperson said there was no relation between unspent funding in the Horizon programmes and their low success rates. She said that the commission’s pursuit and reuse of unspent money from funded projects was “a sign of careful and rigorous use of public money”.

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