[Focus Article] – Horizon Europe Bridging the Research and Innovation Gap with the Western Balkans

Horizon Europe is the EU’s new 7-year framework programme (2021-2027) for research and innovation (R&I). With a EUR 95.5 billion budget, it will consolidate the results and success of Horizon 2020 and keep the EU at the forefront of R&I worldwide.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, has described it as the EU’s main tool to develop solutions for healthier living, drive digital transformation and fight climate change. “With Horizon Europe, the European research community, research organisations and our citizens can count on the world’s largest research and innovation programme,” says the Commissioner.

The mobilisation of researchers and innovators across the Europe Union and the region is crucial. The Western Balkans is no exception. Horizon Europe will boost efforts to strengthen their R&I capacity and connections with the EU as an important step towards EU accession. All economies are improving their capacity at national and regional levels to address new challenges. Improved regional R&I capacity will help the Western Balkan Six meet with EU requirements and standards in key industries.

The European Commission’s recent Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans is geared at spurring long-term economic recovery in the region, supporting a green and digital transition, and strengthening regional integration and convergence with the EU.

During the period 2014-2020, the Western Balkans received Euro 160 million in total European contribution from the start of H2020 with the participation of 906 beneficiaries and 531 funded projects.  Leading EU-Western Balkan projects in R&I include EUSCREEN, SEEIST, ANTARES, iMARECULTURE, EU4TECH and Smart Specialisation Strategies.

New elements

Horizon Europe represents the most ambitious research and innovation programme ever. While continuing to promote scientific excellence through the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Skłodowska-Curie scholarships and exchanges, the programme will introduce new elements:

  • Launch of the European Innovation Council: Support for innovations with potential breakthrough and disruptive nature with scale-up potential that may be too risky for private investors. This is 70 % of the budget earmarked for SMEs.
  • Five missions in the R&I area: Sets of measures to achieve bold, inspirational and measurable goals within a set timeframe.
  • Adoption of Open Science policies: Mandatory open access to publications and open science principles are applied throughout the programme.
  • New approach to partnerships: Objective-driven and more ambitious partnerships with industry in support of EU policy objectives.

In its recent Communication: Global Approach to Research and Innovation, the EC underlines that through its policies and programmes, the EU is a major catalyst for internationalisation in research and innovation. Reciprocal openness, the free exchange of ideas and the co-creation of solutions are essential to the pursuit and advancement of fundamental knowledge and are key components of a vibrant innovation ecosystem.

To maintain its leadership, the EU research and innovation programme will remain open to the world. Fostering the stability and prosperity of candidate countries and potential candidates also remains a key EU priority. The EU is in particular committed to support the implementation of a dedicated innovation agenda for the Western Balkans, including in the framework of the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. Participation in EU programmes is an important element of integration.

Reflecting the EU’s commitment to international openness in R&I, Horizon Europe will be open to participants from all over the world. This means that participants from all over the world, regardless of their place of establishment or residence, will be able to participate in most of the Horizon Europe programme.  For candidate economies such as the Western Balkans, this is particularly favourable as expected outcomes include strengthening strategic networking activities between Western Balkan research institutions and at least two internationally-leading counterparts at EU level, enhancing research management capacities and administrative skills of the staff working in institutions, and increasing mobility of qualified scientists.

Following the political agreement on the text of the Horizon Europe (HE) regulation reached by the EU co-legislators on 11 December 2020, informal exploratory talks have been initiated by the DG R&I unit responsible for the Horizon Europe associations with third countries who have formally expressed an interest in becoming associated to the Horizon Europe Framework Programme. On 29 January 2021 informal exploratory talks took place with Turkey, on 2 February with Armenia, on 3 February with North Macedonia and Bosnia Herzegovina, on 4 February with Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo* and on 5 February with Albania. Progresses on association talks are regularly updated here.

Find more information on Horizon Europe and on the opportunities for the Western Balkans here

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