UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose


The European Union's Missions Case Study: An Overarching Policy Mandate


22 July 2021


What is European Union's Missions and what are the drivers of this case study?

In 2018 the European Commission integrated a mission-oriented approach to its research and innovation funding programme Horizon Europe (2021-2027). See the EU’s introductory video to its missions programme.

What approach did European Union's Missions take?

The European Commission roughly followed a four-step process in developing its missions:

Step 1: Five broad mission areas were designated,

Step 2: A mission governance model was developed,

Step 3: Five concrete missions were defined and

Step 4: Those missions were operationalised.

What is the context for European Union's Missions?

Horizon Europe (2021–2027) is the successor to Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s official research and innovation funding programme between 2014 and 2020. With Horizon Europe, the Commission has increased its contribution to the European innovation system by around 25%, bolstering its three aims of reinforcing competitiveness, creating jobs, and sustaining the EU’s socioeconomic model and values. Indeed, the programme is based on three pillars: (I) Excellent Science; (II) Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness; and (III) Innovative Europe (see Figure 1). Pillar II is of particular importance for this case story because it reorients European funding and research towards societal challenges, and it is through this pillar that the European missions were designed.


What approach did the European Commission take?

The European Commission roughly followed a four-step process in developing its missions:

Step 1: Five broad mission areas were designated,

Step 2: A mission governance model was developed,

Step 3: Five concrete missions were defined and

Step 4: Those missions were operationalised.

The process was initiated in 2018, during which Commission experts and stakeholders used studies and consultations to designate five broad mission areas. Those several months saw a filtering of considered mission areas, with the Commission moving from 45 mission areas to 25, 12 and then finally to five mission areas, namely: (1) Adaptation to climate change; (2) Cancer; (3) Climate-neutral and smart cities; (4) Healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters; and (5) Soil health and food.

In step 2 of the process, a mission governance model was developed, with two bodies, Mission Boards and Mission Assemblies, occupying important positions (see Figure 2). Both bodies were formed and populated as the result of an open call for interest.

Mission Boards are made up of 15 experts who represent different stakeholders, such as research and innovation organisations, policymakers, civil society or other relevant organisations. Their role is to help specify, design and implement missions for the Horizon Europe programme.

On the other hand, Mission Assemblies are bigger, consisting of no more than 30 additional experts, and play a more supportive role, providing additional ideas, knowledge and expertise. One Mission Board and one Mission Assembly are responsible for each mission area, and both bodies are the main avenues for citizen and stakeholder engagement.


Figure 2: Overview of Horizon Europe’s governance model. (Source European Union)

In step 3, the Commission went from broad mission areas to concrete missions. This co-design phase included internal consultations with all Directorate Generals in the Commission (resulting in an ‘orientation’ document), online public consultations, direct dialogue with member states, convening and hosting of the European Research and Innovation Days with 4,000 stakeholders, synthesising of results and proposals of specific mission statements and targets for each mission area. In September 2020, the Mission Boards submitted five proposals to further define the mission areas. These proposals outline the basis for a number of stakeholder and citizen engagement activities across Europe to define the actions and strategies required.

In September 2021, the five missions were officially launched and are as follows:

  • Adaptation to Climate Change: support at least 150 European regions and communities to become climate resilient by 2030
  • Cancer: working with Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan to improve the lives of more than 3 million people by 2030 through prevention, cure and solutions to live longer and better
  • Restore our Ocean and Waters by 2030
  • 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030
  • A Soil Deal for Europe: 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils by 2030

The detailed implementation plans can be found here.

The financing of the missions is a cornerstone of the approach. There is no fixed budget for each mission, but Article 7 of the Horizon Europe Regulation stipulates that during the first three years of the programme, a maximum of 10% of the annual budget of Pillar II (total budget €53billion over 7 years) shall be programmed through specific calls for implementing the missions. On launching the missions, Horizon Europe provides initial funding to missions of up to €1.9 billion until 2023.

With regard to evaluation and monitoring, the Commission has taken on the responsibility to monitor and evaluate each mission, tracking progress through short-, medium-, and long-term targets. The first assessment of the five missions will take place in 2023.

What solutions are emerging as a result of the missions approach?

The missions’ governance body designed by the EU crowds in multiple levels of internal and external engagement and advice to build legitimacy and consensus. This is done through the Mission Boards, the Mission Assemblies, engagement with all Directorate Generals (policy departments responsible for different policy areas), dialogue with member states and with citizens. All of the Directorate Generals, for example, have dedicated mission leads and secretariats. As a result of this approach, the strategic planning exercise has been more comprehensive than in the past framework programme. The approach also triggers a portfolio of actions across disciplines and makes the programme intrinsically more impact driven in achieving bold goals.

What challenges does European Union face in implementing the approach?

First, as Europe’s biggest innovation programme, Horizon is a complex initiative to develop, requiring the Commission to take a considerable number of competing interests from across the EU into account. As such, continuing to mobilise and coordinate a diversity of stakeholders around these five specific mission areas will mean balancing the Commission’s vision with the national innovation strategies of different member states.

Second, the Commission would also like to engage wide public audiences in the missions, and this will need constant creativity and innovation in engagement methods. The previous Horizon 2020 programme employed innovative citizen engagement mechanisms such as Views, Opinions and Ideas of Citizens in Europe on Science (VOICES) and Citizen and Multi-actor Consultation on Horizon 2020 (CIMULACT), which will need to be built upon.

Furthermore, it is important that the missions do not become siloed, but that cross-mission linkages are established and leveraged. Ensuring that programmes and project portfolios emerging from the missions approach are aligned with other programme areas will also be crucial.

What has been learned from Horizon Europe so far?

  1. Beyond sector-based policies. The key differentiating factor between Horizon Europe and its predecessor, Horizon 2020, is the former’s focus beyond sector-based policies to challenge-driven policies. Indeed, the programme’s second pillar clearly seeks to address grand societal challenges, which don’t fall neatly into one specific sector, discipline, or innovation area. In doing so, the five missions have the potential to mobilize cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral engagement from across Europe.
  2. Multiple levels of governance can strengthen the structure of the missions approach. The robustness of Horizon Europe’s structure comes, at least in part, from the multiple levels of internal and external dialogue and governance required to build and sustain it. For example, the Mission Boards and Mission Assemblies offer highlevel external advice, all Directorate Generals (DGs) are involved for internal coordination, all Member States are involved for external coordination, and strategic reports are continuously constructed to guide the process along.
  3. Crowdsource expertise and intelligence through open calls for interest and proposals. By organizing open calls for interest and open calls for proposals, the Commission tapped into the immense insights and experience of citizens, specialists, and innovation networks. The Mission Boards and Mission Assemblies, for example, were populated in such a way, as was the information collected from more than 6,000 respondents between June and October 2019.