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Euroskeptic Surge Rocks E.U. Elections

Last week's European elections have seen an unprecedented surge of parties that want to cut back on the union's powers—prompting fears that pan-European research policies could be slowed down.

According to the latest official estimates today, the biggest winners of the elections are extremist parties with an anti-immigration, anti-E.U. stance. This includes the U.K. Independence Party, which has pledged to pull the country out of the European bloc, and France's far-right National Front, which scooped 25% of the country's votes, relegating the ruling socialist party to third place.

These parties will remain a minority in the European Parliament, however. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) won 28.36% of the Parliament's seats, down from 35.77% in the outgoing chamber. Despite this drop, it remains the largest political group in the Parliament ahead of the social-democrats (S&D, who appear stable with about 25% of seats), followed by pro-European liberals, and greens.

While E.U. research funding programs make up an ever-growing part of the bloc's budget, R&D policy largely remains the turf of individual governments—and Eurocritics will certainly prefer to keep it that way. Efforts to make the union's research policies more cohesive, for example through joint science programs where several countries share funding pots and priorities, have remained noncompulsory, complex, and slow to pick up steam.

“A greater number of Europhobic members … in the European Parliament would certainly have negative consequences on the idea to turn scientific research and innovation into a great European policy, as we have done for agriculture,” says Jean-Pierre Audy, an EPP parliamentarian from France who lost his seat in this election.

A political adviser in the Parliament specializing in research issues, who prefers not to be named, agrees with Audy. “For a while we've been promised [legally-binding measures] to complete the European Research Area. These things may be even more difficult to push forward” in the future, she says.

On a more positive note, observers say the threat to science policies is limited. In the Parliament, decisions are reached through a consensus among parties, and research is an area where members of Parliament (MEPs) are remarkably united across the political spectrum. (For the sake of science, even the National Front makes exceptions to its plea to curb immigration: On its website, the party pledges to “attract the best foreign researchers [to France] through an ultra-selective immigration policy.”)

“The groups have different political objectives about what we should fund and how, but they are united” to defend research funds during budget negotiations with the member states, the adviser says. However, that's often not enough to protect the science budget entirely from cost-conscious member states, and the European Union's R&D funds could be squeezed in political “horse trading,” says a research lobbyist in Belgium.

Audy says the most important research files on the MEPs' desks will be the midterm review of Horizon 2020, the bloc's 7-year research program, in 2017, and the review of the European Union's budget for 2014 to 2020, scheduled for 2016. Both processes are unlikely to cause big changes, write the leaders of Euroscience, a grassroots association of researchers, in a statement released on 16 May. But this doesn't mean parliamentarians should sit back for the next 5 years, they add: The Parliament should challenge the European Commission to push governments to invest more in research and innovation, in particular in southern and Eastern European countries that have suffered most from the economic crisis.

The exact balance of power in the incoming Parliament is still uncertain. Before the chamber's first plenary session in July, MEPs from different countries will form groups according to their political affinities. (At the time of writing, 64 MEPs were not affiliated to any of the existing groups in the outgoing Parliament.)

In mid-July, the Parliament will first get to flex its political muscles when it votes to elect the next president of the European Commission, who is put forward by the European Union's heads of state and government. The member states, in agreement with the president-elect, will then allocate portfolios to the 28 commissioners (one from each country, including the next research and innovation chief); these candidates will appear before MEPs in September or October.