January 18, 2013 5:10 pm

Spain on collision course with Cern

The particle accelerator at the Cern lab©Charlie Bibby

Spain is at risk of having its voting rights revoked at Cern, the European particle physics research laboratory, after running up a €50m debt at the institute as a government austerity drive scaled back investment in science and technology.

The Spanish government has built up the only large debt of the institute’s 20 member countries, famous for developing the Large Hadron Collider. It has prompted a senior delegation from Cern to visit Madrid several times over the past six months to arrange a payment plan.

“This is not normal, because normally countries pay each year,” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of Cern, told the Financial Times. “We must now try to work in a constructive manner to make sure this debt does not accumulate into too large an amount”.

Late in December Spain paid its 2011 contribution, more than a year late, and agreed to pay 25 per cent of the money it owed for 2012, leaving it with a debt of about €50m.

While Madrid is required to pay a contribution of €74m for this year, the government’s budget for 2013 has pencilled in spending on Cern of only €50m. This means Spain is likely to miss its full payment again unless it renegotiates the terms of its membership.

A country that does not pay its contributions for two years has its voting rights suspended at Cern, meaning Spain must settle its bill for this year and the outstanding debt by the end of 2013. Both sides are looking for a plan that would see Spain owe nothing in about three years’ time.

Both the government of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, and his predecessor José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, have been criticised by Spanish scientists for scaling back research budgets as part of a drive to reduce government spending and meet deficit reduction targets agreed with Brussels.

Mr Heuer said he had met Carmen Vela, Spain’s secretary of state for research, development and innovation, and was confident that a solution would be found.

A spokesman for Ms Vela said that the Spanish government was working in a “constructive” dialogue with Cern over the debts. “We are completely committed to staying in Cern, and are making an effort on both sides to find a solution,” he said.

Last year the British physicist Peter Higgs, whose name is lent to the Higgs Boson particle discovered at Cern last year, dubbed the “God particle” in popular media, criticised the Spanish government for failing to invest in scientific research.

“Spain has to spend more than other countries on science due to the utter neglect it has suffered in the past,” he said in Barcelona last November. The country, he said, now “needed science more [than ever], or it will have consequences for the economy”.

Spain’s ruling Popular party is struggling to defend itself after a court revealed that a former party treasurer amassed €22m ($29m) in a Swiss bank account, Associated Press reports from Madrid.

Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria, deputy prime minister, faced a barrage of questions from journalists on Friday and denied she knew anything about the money or newspaper reports that ex-treasurer Luis Bárcenas allegedly also gave party members large sums in under-the table payments.

She deflected questions as to whether Mr Rajoy or other members of the conservative government received money.

The National Court says an investigation into irregular payments by companies to party members in return for business contracts uncovered that Mr Barcenas had five Swiss accounts. Mr Barcenas, a former senator, resigned in 2010 months after he was first named in the investigation.

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