The core message of the European Research Area is the need to overcome fragmentation of research efforts in the EU through better coordination and cooperation. The ERA-NET instrument was developed to allow coordination and cooperation of national and regional research programmes. National and regional authorities identify research programmes they wish to coordinate or open up mutually. Thus, the participants in these actions are either programme 'owners' (typically ministries or regional authorities defining research programmes) or programme 'managers' (such as research councils or other research funding agencies managing research programmes).

The ERA-NET instrument has a long history. It was first introduced under Framework Programme 6 and has undergone changes since then. Under Framework Programme 7, two types were introduced: the 'typical' ERA-NET and the new ERA-NET+ instrument. Under Horizon2020 another new form was introduced: The ERA-NET Cofund. The amount of budget for ERA-NETs has increased from about 185 M€ in FP6 to over 250 M€ in the 2014-2015 Work Programme of Horizon2020 alone. Although the number of ERA-NETs have increased largely during Framework Programme 7, it is foreseen that the new ERA-NET Cofund instrument should lead to a reduction through clustering of ERA-NETs.