Mariya Gabriel

View from Brussels: Departure is bad timing for R&D

Image credit: European Union

The European Union’s top R&D official has quit her post in order to return to national politics and attempt to set up a new government in Bulgaria, in what is a significant blow to research priorities.

Mariya Gabriel has served as both a member of the European Parliament and a member of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch.

After two years as head of digital policy in the previous administration, Gabriel was put in charge of research, innovation, education, culture and youth policies by the current head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Over the past four years she has overseen parts of the EU’s pandemic response, by coordinating efforts to fund vaccine research and establish a new health emergency authority.

Gabriel has also not shied away from playing politics with science-based policies, whether it was keeping the United Kingdom at arm’s length from the Horizon Europe research programme because of Brexit-related concerns or cutting Russia off from funding.

The Bulgarian politician’s somewhat surprising recall by her centre-right political party to national politics leaves the research job without a dedicated official to run it. For the time being, her responsibilities have been split between two high-ranking commissioners.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust tsar who also oversees digital policies, will take on the research and innovation aspects of Gabriel’s job, while Greece’s commissioner will add the education, culture and youth parts to his portfolio.

It is bad timing for the research community as there was already upheaval in Brussels because of the recent arrival of a new director at the Commission’s research department, which crafts and fine-tunes all of the policies agreed at political level.

Bulgarian politics are a difficult beast and attempts to form a working government have come up short recently. It could transpire that Gabriel is not able to put together a viable proposal and might be back in Brussels sooner than expected.

That is part of the reason why the Commission refuses to say whether or not she will be replaced, as it is simply too early to decide. After all, she only has about a week to try and form a government before the opposition is given a shot.

Each country is entitled to a representative in the 27-strong EU executive and each is given their own area of policy to lord over. If Gabriel can put together a government then she would then be expected to nominate her own successor.

This actually happened with Bulgaria and Gabriel herself in 2017, when predecessor Kristalina Georgieva left her job as budget chief to become head of the World Bank and subsequently head of the International Monetary Fund.

Gabriel was given a carve-out from a higher-ranking member of the Commission’s duties, which is a reminder that it might not be a straight swap of officials for the research and innovation job. Bulgaria’s next commissioner might be given something else.

The timing is doubly bad because this Commission is nearing the end of its mandate. In 12 months time, EU citizens will vote in bloc-wide elections, after which a new executive will be formed.

It is currently full steam ahead in Brussels to try and tie up any loose ends and get any existing business off the books before time runs out, campaigning begins and the EU capital essentially shuts down when it comes to policymaking.

Before this Commission shuts up shop it is supposed to draft a plan on how to spend the second half of the bloc’s near €100bn research war chest. In addition, the next round of programmes due to kick off in 2028 has to be put together.

The sector also needs someone to fight its corner when it comes to the next budgets and where cuts need to be made. Without someone with skin in the game, well-funded research programmes might be a tempting prospect for penny-pinching officials.

As far as the UK and its still-stalled Horizon Europe membership goes, Gabriel’s departure might make little difference as the log-jam is still being managed at a higher level by EU officials.

But if an agreement is brokered on what the UK needs to pay to finally get access, then a rudderless ship at the Commission’s R&D HQ could delay matters further. The same is true for potential new Horizon tie-ups like Australia, Canada and Japan.

Brussels is probably glad that one of its more important officials has not been poached by national politics but Gabriel’s exit still has the potential to cause headaches.

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