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Despite their differences, the EU and ESA are made for each other

At its recent meeting, the European Space Agency took a small but momentous step closer to the EU. It's a logical move, says David Southwood, but one that presages a fierce debate.

Since the European Space Agency was founded in 1975, ministers from member countries have met every three or four years, most recently in Naples a fortnight ago, to review its programme and set its political agenda.

Most attention in Naples focused on the agency’s scientific and technological plans. But in years to come, the meeting might be remembered for the one, apparently insignificant, political resolution adopted by ministers.

This initiated a process to define how ESA can adapt its intergovernmental framework to take advantage of EU competence in space. Given that the EU and ESA have been working together in earnest since the late 1990s on the programme to create the Galileo network of navigation satellites, it might seem a little late for such a statement.

But the latest resolution’s dense and opaque wording hides some hard politics relating to thorny aspects of how ESA will eventually come into the EU fold. Indeed, the week before the ESA meeting, the Commission issued a communication on EU-ESA relations that struck many as a pre-emptive strike in the debate to come.

One issue is that ESA’s membership is distinct from the union. Norway and Switzerland are in ESA but not the EU, for example, while many of the EU’s more recent members have yet to join ESA—although significantly, seven ministers from such countries supported the political declaration in Naples. But understanding the economic and political questions underlying ESA’s relationship with the EU means recognising the differences of organisation, not membership, and particularly the agency’s status as an intergovernmental body.

ESA operates an industrial policy known as juste retour, under which procurement must match each state’s contribution. Juste retour has helped high-quality space capacity to spread across Europe. But such preferential procurement breaks the rules of both the World Trade Organisation and the European Commission.

The policy also creates a wider problem, in that it creates fragmentation where cohesion is needed. Launcher capacity, for example, might seem a requirement for independent European access to space, yet only six or seven of ESA’s 20 members are deeply involved in launcher development. And in general, ESA members have greatly differing priorities. This results from the combination of juste retour with the optional nature of ESA programmes, whereby members sign up to the agency’s programmes according to their perceived interest and, often, industrial benefit.

ESA’s procurement rules have correctly been labelled protectionist. Even so, companies must still fight for the chance to tackle the exciting technological challenges of building leading-edge research spacecraft. At the same time, there is a lot of less glamorous off-the-shelf procurement. Members all want to receive their juste retour in the former domain and avoid the latter, so competition can be fierce.

ESA has been an enormous success—not to mention an excellent example of European cooperation—and not just in space applications and infrastructure. The world-leading X-ray, gamma-ray and infrared astronomical space observatories, the envy even of US scientists, came out of the ESA system.

The agency also has a technical capacity that oversees procurement in a manner well understood by industry. The Commission’s technical set-up, in contrast, seems ill-adapted to the special and sensitive needs of space, as reflected in the problems suffered by the first two major EU-driven space projects, the Galileo navigation system and Global Monitoring for Environmental Security.

Whatever their incompatibilities, however, a moment’s reflection suggests that the EU and ESA will not be separate 50 years hence. Any developed nation now requires space capabilities for environmental surveillance, navigation, telecommunications and numerous applications that combine all three. But no single European state can afford the necessary infrastructure and R&D capacity.

It seems natural for the EU to oversee European space development and exploitation. The Naples declaration is a step in this direction, towards the marriage of partners with very different industrial policies, technical capability and political authority. The hackles raised by the Commission document, which places the onus on ESA to adapt to EU structures, and proposes that the Commission oversee ESA’s international affairs and programmes, shows that the courtship will be stormy.

Nations are already weighing up the pluses and minuses of that conjunction for their future industrial capacity and aspirations in space. There is going to be a fierce debate over how to retain the virtues of ESA under the political umbrella of the EU. It has to be done, but it is going to be difficult.

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David Southwood, senior research associate at Imperial College London, is president of the Royal Astronomical Society.