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A United Europe in Space?

The argument over the UK’s post-Brexit role in the Galileo satellite network has led to broader discussions of the UK’s role as a space power. Yet, of equal importance is what this episode tells us about Europe’s long-term space ambitions.

Recent reports that Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus, sent a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron imploring the two countries to take the lead in defining Europe’s space ambitions have brought to the fore questions about how Europe sees its role in space, both through the endeavours of individual states and through the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA). As European space programmes struggle with the implications of the UK’s impending departure from the EU, the US is grappling with its own definitional disputes on ‘space power’. Both North America and Europe must compete with developments within the Chinese and Russian space programmes and operate within an increasingly congested and contested environment resulting from the proliferation of new actors. In this context, Airbus’s Tom Enders may be right to urge European space powers to develop a cohesive and forward-looking strategy for space activities.

With the focus in recent months on the UK’s access – or lack thereof – to the military-grade Public Regulated Service (PRS) component of the Galileo programme, it could be easy to mistake this for the only important aspect of European space infrastructure, that a European developed and managed Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and its associated contracts for industry comprise the entirety of European programmes, at least within the context of what is important at the state and international level. However, this is far from being the case.  Looking beyond the headline-grabbing aspect of the Galileo dispute between the UK and its European neighbours and EU partners also throws light on Europe’s broader space activities.

As has been noted elsewhere, while regulations and agreements may bar the UK from future involvement in the Galileo programme after the UK leaves the EU, the EU would be equally worse off. The question is whether this also applies to other space programmes. Alongside Galileo, the EU’s other flagship space programme is Copernicus, its Earth Observation Programme. While not as overtly related to security and defence as the PRS aspect of Galileo, Copernicus provides open access to satellite-based data relevant to atmospheric monitoring and climate change, part of a range of services. Copernicus is also used to provide geospatial and early warning information to emergency services, a security stream focused on border and maritime surveillance and support to the EU External Action Service (the EU’s diplomatic service).

Unlike Galileo, there is nothing barring the UK from accessing or using the data from Copernicus after Brexit, as the majority of this data is available to any user around the world. However, both programmes will be affected by the EU’s Space Industrial Policy, which insists that work on EU-funded space programmes should only be carried out, where possible, in EU member states. As UK companies have been heavily involved in both programmes to date, the EU could see the completion of its two major satellite programmes delayed if it insists on a strict application of the industrial policy and seeks to find alternatives to UK involvement after Brexit next year.

What is particularly interesting about both these programmes is how they highlight the relationship between the EU and the ESA. Both Galileo and Copernicus are funded by the EU, but each is developed and project managed by the ESA, and although the ESA is effectively regarded as the EU’s ‘space agency’, it is not an EU body. Its membership is made up of 22 European countries (not all of them EU member states) and two associated states: Canada and Slovenia. The ESA’s purpose is stated as providing and promoting cooperation in space research and technology for exclusively peaceful purposes.

That definition of purpose could potentially cause tension, should the EU look to increase its investment in space programmes with a defence angle. Still, with the European Commission recently announcing its proposal for €16 billion to ‘boost EU space leadership’ over the next seven years, it is clear that the EU and the ESA are expected to continue working closely together to bring these projects to fruition. This budget includes future funding for Galileo and Copernicus, as well as money for the development of new security components. It will be interesting to see how the EU chooses to implement its programmes, and whether it looks to supplement ESA should projects steer too far from the agency’s mandate.  

In terms of launch capability, Europe is in a strong position, with the site at Kourou in French Guiana allowing for the launch of large payloads to geosynchronous orbit. However, while French research and innovation minister Frédérique Vidal recently said that there is an intention to continue to use and support European launchers, the Ariane rocket programme (the family of launchers used by the ESA) is not without its detractors. It also faces increasing pressure from commercial launch providers such as SpaceX, a US company that manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, offering earlier launch windows at decreased costs. How the EU and individual European governments decide to balance costs with a desire to support a European industry will say much about both the EU’s ambitions and its future relationship with the ESA.

Europe has proven itself to be an important space power. But unlike both its allies and its adversaries in the space domain, it does not always speak or act with one voice. Each EU member state has its own space priorities and views on how resources should be spent, as well as differences over the extent to which space is integrated in the national security machinery and decision-making processes of individual member states. How the EU can consolidate these sometimes competing priorities into a sustained space strategy will provide real proof of Europe’s commitment to space. It is perfectly understandable that the boss of Airbus is anxious for European political leadership.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution. 


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