The UK government’s decision to delay approval for revisions to the European Union budget could hit funding for universities and researchers across the continent, with Britain “most affected”, a senior MEP has warned.
At the end of last month, the UK informed European diplomats that it was blocking mid-term revisions to the EU’s 2014-2020 budget plan, citing “purdah” rules preventing it from making sensitive political decisions in the run-up to the general election on 8 June.
While the budget was not increased overall, the revisions included a €200 million (£169 million) uplift for the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme and €100 million extra for the Erasmus+ programme, which provides funding for students to study abroad.
EU officials have reportedly described the delay as a deliberate “show of force” from the UK government ahead of Brexit talks, rather than a technical decision.
Although UK approval is still expected after the election, given that the overall EU budget is not increasing, some have concerns about the potential impact of the delay on Horizon 2020, which originally had a budget of €80 billion when it launched in 2014. More broadly, the row illustrates how EU research funding could be dragged into wider political conflicts between the UK government and Brussels.
Asked for comment on the delay's impact on Horizon 2020 funding, a European Commission spokesman told Times Higher Education: “We were surprised by the UK's decision to delay the adoption of the mid-term review. We expect the UK to take its decision as soon as possible, not least in order to avoid negative consequences for a number of policy areas.”
The budget revisions had originally been scheduled for approval by the end of 2016, but had already been subject to delays prior to the UK’s intervention.
So far in Horizon 2020, UK universities have won more funding than any other nation’s universities, according to UK government figures based on European Commission data. The UK government may seek to remain part of future EU research programmes post-Brexit as an associated country.
Siegfried Mureșan, a Romanian MEP who is vice-chair of the European Parliament’s budgets committee, has warned that the UK’s block was a “major risk” for European research and that British universities could be “harmed”.
Mr Mureșan, who is also spokesman for the European People’s Party group of centre-right parties in the European Parliament, told THE that leaving Horizon 2020 funding flat would deprive “many good projects” of financing. “Already the success rate of projects financed through Horizon 2020 has dropped in the first two years of the programme to around 12 per cent compared to 19 per cent, which was the success rate of the previous research programme."
He added: “Researchers in all EU [nations] will be affected; most affected will be the UK, as the UK is the biggest beneficiary of EU research funding among all 28 member states.”
A UK government spokesman has been quoted as saying that the move on the multiannual financial framework revision was “nothing to do with a change in position [on the budget]. We sought to delay a vote on a sensitive file in keeping with our pre-election protocol.”
Mr Mureșan continued: “The postponement of the revision makes it difficult for the Commission to present a draft budget which corresponds to the needs of 2018, but if the revision is agreed in July [after the UK election], we can still incorporate the changes.
“The sooner, the better. Not adopting the revision at all is a bad thing with huge negative implications, including for the UK.”