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EU ITER funding proposals set to stir budget row

The European Commission today released proposals on the funding of the ITER nuclear fusion research project from 2014 to 2020 that seem certain to set the stage for a showdown with the European Union’s 27 member states next year, when discussions of future EU budgets enter their negotiating phase.

As expected, today’s proposals would remove the €2.7 billion EU funding for ITER — the international effort to build a fusion-energy test reactor — over that period from the EU general budget. The commission wants to reduce the exposure of the EU budget to the risks of any further repeats of the cost overruns that have plagued ITER’s construction – see my 29 November article in Nature on this all: “Outcry over EU budget plan.”

Under the new proposal, the funding vehicle for ITER – which is being constructed in Cadarache, France – would be a new “Supplementary Research Programme” that would be created within the EU’s nuclear body, Euratom. Funding for ITER itself would come from contributions by EU member states calculated on the basis of their Gross National Income (GNI).

The commission has very good political reasons for wanting to use Euratom as the vehicle for any ITER funding outside of the EU general budget, and not, for example a new intergovernmental agency as it recently proposed for the €5.8 billion of funding the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme from 2014 to 2020. For a start, it does not want any new funding arrangement that could risk any reopening of negotiations on the already agreed ITER international agreement with EU ITER’s partners: Russia, Japan, China, India, South Korea and the United States – any such renegotiations would at best take years, while reopening existing agreements itself always carries risks.

The official EU signatory to the international agreement on building ITER is not the EU but Euratom, which is built on a different treaty to the European Union, although both bodies are closely linked. Euratom’s members are the EU 27 member states, and Euratom also delegates governance and financial management of ITER to the commission. The task of providing Europe’s contribution to ITER is carried out by the EU Joint Undertaking for ITER and the Development of Fusion Energy, a body created under the Euratom treaty by the council of the European Union. The members of the Joint Undertaking are the EU member states and Euratom, represented by the commission.

Which brings us to the second reason for the proposed funding montage. It would mean that the existing EU structures and rules for managing ITER would stay exactly as they are now, and in particular with the European Commission representing the EU within the international ITER project. Member states would also not directly fund the new Euratom ITER programme, but rather give the money to the commission, but earmarked as being for ITER. The end result of all this would be that the commission retains its current pre-eminent role of governing and managing ITER within the EU.

Running ITER funding out of Euratom does have one immediate inconvenience. Euratom doesn’t have seven-year budgets (as the EU does) but five-year budgets, which would mean that the EU could not negotiate ITER’s full-funding for the period 2014 to 2020, as the next Euratom budget only runs from 2014 to 2018. So the commission is proposing that ITER would get €2.36 billion from 2014 to 2018; it hasn’t yet any firm idea of how the outstanding €346 million in ITER funding that his would leave in 2019 and 2020 would be found – but is more or less banking on this being far enough away on the horizon for some solution to this problem to be found before 2019.

Member states are likely to contest the proposals when the commission begins negotiations with the Council on the ITER proposal next year. On 10 November, ministers from eight member states, including Germany, France and Italy, wrote to Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU research commissioner, as well as the industry and budget commissioners, warning that any move to take ITER funding out of the EU budget would only “weaken” ITER’s “funding and governance.”

Many member states are moreover likely to be reluctant to give the EU new money to fund ITER, rather than take it out of there existing EU contributions – in particular at a time when many of their economies are tanking. Member states might also attempt to add strings to any new funding route, such as a proportional return in industrial contracts – the latter is banned in current EU ITER arrangements, but common at the European Space Agency and other European bodies. So whether the commission proposals will fly or not is anybody’s guess, but what seems clear is that 2012 is going to see long protracted negotiations among the EU’s institutions as to how ITER will be funded.

Update: 14 December

A link to the European Commission proposals initially included in this article has been removed, as the proposals are no longer available on the commission website – the proposals were released accidentally yesterday before they had been fully agreed upon, a commission official explained to Nature. The final version of the proposals is scheduled to be released by the commission on 22nd December.

Correction: 14 December

The paragraph beginning “The official EU signatory to the international agreement on building ITER…” has been tweaked to correct a minor error.


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