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Argentina slams Galileo plan for Falklands

Territory dispute is latest problem for satellite system

Argentina is protesting against plans to build a ground station for the Galileo satellite navigation system on the disputed Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.

A letter of complaint was sent by Argentina’s government to the EU’s 27 member states two weeks ago asking the countries to have the ground station moved if they want to maintain strong bilateral relations.

The letter appears to be the latest move in a campaign by Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner to re-open the issue of Falklands sovereignty through diplomatic means. Britain won a short but bloody war in 1982 to retain control of the islands, but they are categorised by the UN as a non-self-governing territory, or colony.

Since the discovery of oil in water off the islands in 2010, the simmering dispute has escalated once again. Argentina hopes that its allies in Mercosur—the South American common market—will support its claim, and decline to extend the logistical assistance the UK would need to service oil production there.

Argentina’s embassy in London and its mission in Brussels declined to release a copy of the letter to Research Fortnight, but acknowledged that it had been sent. The letter appears timed to exploit the current weakness in the UK’s relations with the rest of the EU.

Diplomats in some EU states privately expressed surprise that there were plans for a Galileo ground station in the Falklands, saying that they hadn’t realised such plans existed until the Argentinians complained. Argentina has sizeable expatriate populations from, and good bilateral relations with, Germany and Italy, as well as with its largest EU trading partner, Spain.

A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office in London told Research Europe: “We are aware of the Argentinian letter. However decisions on siting ground stations for Galileo are a technical matter for the member states and the European Commission.”

A German diplomat in Brussels said: “Argentina has approached Germany and raised its concerns over the establishment of the Galileo sensor station in the Falkland Islands. Installation and management of the Galileo system fall into the responsibility of the Commission,” the diplomat added.

“As the Commission explained to member states, the decision on where the antenna should be located was taken on purely technical grounds.

“In the view of the German federal government, the Commission’s decision on Galileo is purely technical and not connected to the German position regarding the conflict between the UK and Argentina on the Falkland Islands/Malvinas.”

The Galileo press office said that it was unable to answer questions on the dispute or even provide information about the technical requirements for Galileo ground stations. It referred questions about the Argentinian complaint to the office of Antonio Tajani, the commissioner for industry and enterprise. But his spokeswoman, Sara Tironi, was also unable to clarify outstanding issues on the topic.

According to the Galileo website two UK contractors have prominent roles in drawing up Galileo’s ground systems: EADS Astrium, which is responsible for ground control, and British Telecom, which will operate Galileo’s global data network.

Galileo was first proposed as a European alternative to the United-States-run Global Positioning System in 1999. Although widely used in Europe and elsewhere, GPS can be withdrawn at any time by the US military, and European governments have argued that they need their own, independent system.

However, the projected costs for Galileo have soared, and the system is not expected to be in operation until 2018. The first two of 22 Galileo satellites planned by then were launched in October 2011, and a further two went up last month. A ground station was inaugurated in French Guiana in 2009, but little has been published about the other Galileo ground stations in the southern hemisphere.