21 November 2013

The European Union will continue to fund the International Thermonuclear Experimental Rector (ITER) directly from its own coffers over the next five years – and not from member states' contributions as the European Commission wanted – according to the Union's long-term budget, which the European Parliament rubber-stamped this week.

After nine months of negotiations with the European Council and after two vote postponements, the EP gave its green light in Strasbourg, on 19 November, to the so-called multiannual financial framework (MFF), which lays down the maximum annual amounts that the EU may spend in different fields.

The agreed MFF, together with a vote specifically on the budget of ITER, clarified the project's financial future.

The Commission proposed, in a 2011 communication, to fund ITER, the most important international nuclear fusion research project, outside of the MFF. Hence it proposed the creation of a so-called supplementary research programme for the period 2014-2018. The vision was to fund ITER through contributions from member states based on an agreed proportion of their gross national income, which would have been paid in to the EU budget.

The Commission argued this measure would have allowed it to deal more easily with the regular budget increases necessary to see the project through. Moreover, the Commission framed its request in the context of the international obligations and responsibilities the EU has for this massive project.

MEPs approved in Strasbourg this week the Commission's proposed budget for ITER of maximum €2,573 million for 2014-2020, according to the final text adopted. However, MEPs maintained that the project's budget should come from the MFF.

“Financing it outside would not be understood by the European stakeholders involved in the programme, nor by our international partners in the project,” according an explanatory note from a June 2013 report by Vladimir Remek (GUE-NGL, Czech Republic), the rapporteur on this proposal in the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE).

A total of 524 MEPs voted in favour of Remek's resolution to keep ITER funds within the MFF, with 91 against and 64 abstentions.

Nevertheless, despite ITER's “ring-fenced maximum” in the MFF, parliamentarians recognised that the project “may continue to incur cost overruns due to its scientific nature.” Hence they left room for additional funds to be added to this agreed cap.

“Any cost overruns above this maximum amount [ ] shall be financed through additional resources over and above the ceilings as appropriate,” the final text reads. It is not yet clear where these additional resources would come from.

The EU, together with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States, signed an agreement, in November 2006, which set up ITER's framework. The reactor, headquartered in Cadarache, South of France, is estimated to cost more than €10 billion over the 35-year life span of the project. As the host party, the EU covers about 45% of ITER's costs.

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