The CE7 coalition of seven universities hopes a new partnership with the League European Research Universities will give them more influence in shaping EU policy to better suit their needs, writes Science|Business.
Universities in central and eastern Europe need to make their voices heard when it comes to shaping EU policy, say representatives of CE7, a group of universities in Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovenia.
In September the group signed a new partnership with the League of European Research Universities (LERU), which represents 23 top research universities, with one intention being to put the CE7 in a better position to lobby EU policymakers.
CE7 has been meeting LERU twice a year since 2016 and so cooperation between the two is not new. But the agreement, signed 10 September in Prague, reinforces the partnership and is also a commitment to giving CE7 universities more of a say in policy change at an EU level.
Pavel Doleček, vice rector for Strategic Cooperation and Development at Charles University in Prague, told Science|Business universities have a unique ecosystem and they should play an important part in shaping decisions coming out of Brussels.
LERU and CE7 have two common main aims, Doleček said. One is the usual inter-university cooperation, promoting research projects, running summer schools, and creating working groups.
The other one is to lobby policymakers in Brussels to try to shape the European environment to be more flexible and welcoming to universities.
This is a role that until now, CE7 universities have not fully committed to, Doleček said. "The seven universities, we are strong and good. We should be willing to be heard, trying to promote our points of view, trying to shape the political environment to benefit research, through legislation, budgets.”
“I think this is extremely important,” said Doleček.
Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu, agreed. He said that an important issue facing universities in central and eastern Europe is the gap in research funding compared to universities in western Europe.
“The longer this last, the more it threatens to increase the disparity in the levels of development between the east and west,” Asser told Science|Business. “My aim is that we would like to catch up with our western counterparts in this and I am quite convinced that closer cooperation with LERU is a way in which we can do this.”
Asser pointed to EU Widening actions that aim to help increase the success of researchers in countries that have low participation in EU Framework Programmes, including Estonia and the Czech Republic, in obtaining research grants as a measure that he thinks CE7 universities should be more vocal about.
Asser said that while there may be some issues with the measures, they are crucial and CE7 universities should be more involved in how they are shaped.
He wants to see CE7 universities working on coordinating their opinions on EU-level policies and to present a united front to policy makers.
The CE7/LERU pact is not the only sign that universities from central and eastern Europe are trying to increase their influence in Brussels. The University of Tartu, the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, Jagiellonian University in Poland and Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania have all in recent years joined The Guild, another European university lobbying group.
CE7 and Ukraine
Doleček said that while CE7 institutions are looking forward to drawing on the experience of LERU, the relationship can work both ways, and he hopes LERU and other western institutions can learn and benefit from closer cooperation with the CE7.
“Because of the war in Ukraine and other political factors, we are stronger than we used to be and have a more important role to play in the EU,” he said.
Western universities and politicians have, at times, a slightly different perception of the war in Ukraine from those in central and eastern Europe, Asser said.
“Especially in Estonia we feel very strongly what might have happened if we had not been able to join the EU and NATO so quickly. We would be in the same situation as Ukraine now,” he said.
Asser believes western European universities sometimes did not see the threat of Russia in the same way as CE7 universities, which are dealing with a more existential danger.
“They at times do not realise the full scale of the threats and what the future might be if we do not effectively and actively act to support Ukraine,” he said. “That may create irreversible geopolitical changes, not only in Europe but around the world.”
“LERU is exactly the space we need where we can highlight and explain our views about what is happening in Ukraine and what we feel the threats are,” said Asser.
Another reason for Charles University in particular to take a more active role in shaping policies coming out of Brussels is the possibility that the Czech Republic will lose access to the EU Cohesion fund in the near future.
The Czech Republic is one of 15 EU countries to receive money through the Cohesion fund, which goes to member states with a gross national income per capita below 90% of the EU-27’s average.
Lukáš Levák of the Czech government’s Department of Research and Development told a Science|Business conference earlier this month that there is a real possibility of the country as a whole, or large parts of it, losing investment from this fund due to success in improving the research ecosystem and infrastructure in Czechia.
This could create a funding gap of around €3 billion, he said, which would have to be shouldered by the state or by researchers and institutions improving their success in obtaining grants through EU framework programmes.
Doleček said it was now a matter of survival for universities in the country to get involved in shaping EU funding tools to help create better circumstances for researchers in the Czech Republic.
“In a very pragmatic way we have to be prepared to start shaping our own environment – we have to shape Europe,” he said.
The CE7 universities are:
On the cover photo, there are representatives of CE7 universities with LERU chair Yves Flückiger (centre) at the partnership agreement signing ceremony in Prague on 10 September. Photo: Hynek Glos / LERU