Battle Brewing Between ESA and EU Over Space Policy, Budget Authority

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NAPLES, Italy — The 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and the 27-nation European Union’s (EU) executive commission appear to be on a collision course over who wields authority over European space policy and its related budgets.

The two organizations have circled around each other for years, with ESA hoping the commission would be, in effect, a force multiplier for ESA’s budget, adding 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) or more each year in fresh funding to Europe’s space program.

The EU commission has viewed ESA as a shop of space mechanics, overseeing the technical aspects of space program management but leaving policy decisions to the EU.

The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered effect in December 2009, explicitly affirms the EU’s interest in space policy as a “shared competence” with other institutions such as individual EU member states and ESA. This has given the EU commission a mandate to take up space policy.

ESA and EU government ministers are scheduled to meet Dec. 11 in Brussels as part of the Ninth Space Council — meetings they have had almost every year since 2004 — designed to pursue common interests.

But this year’s meeting is likely to be more fraught than the others because of a policy proposal issued by the commission that basically calls for the EU to assume control of ESA.

The proposal, “Establishing appropriate relations between the EU and the European Space Agency,” was published Nov. 14 and has been sent to European government ministers, and to the European Parliament, for comment.

The document says that the EU has several problems with ESA relating to ESA’s inclusion of non-EU nations in its membership, the way it awards contracts and the lack of democratic oversight of ESA’s functioning.

The commission says that as ESA and the EU move more into security- and military-related space activities, they will need to discuss issues that should not be within earshot of Norway and Switzerland, which are ESA members, and of Canada, an associate ESA member.

These three nations’ association with ESA “poses an obvious problem in general, and an even more acute problem when it comes to security and defense matters,” the document says.

Compounding the problem, the document says, is ESA’s regular use of one nation, one vote to approve programs, which gives nations that are otherwise not key to most ESA activities — including Switzerland, Norway and Canada — a key role in determining ESA’s direction.

A second issue the EU has with ESA is the way the space agency awards contracts. The differences here became clear when the EU assumed control from ESA of the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellite constellation.

ESA nations contributing to Galileo wanted their national industry to receive contracts commensurate with their subscriptions. But the EU operates on a value-for-money basis and selects contractors without specific regard for whether they are located in nations that are contributing to the program.

When ESA and the EU join forces on programs, such as Galileo and the broad Global Monitoring for Environment and Security effort, the frictions between the two institutions is obvious. “This has given rise to difficulties,” the EU document says.

The third issue raised by the EU is ESA’s decision-making process, which in general takes place behind closed doors.

ESA’s Nov. 20-21 ministerial conference, which decided the agency’s budget and program direction for the next three to five years, is the most recent example. The agency was so worried about keeping its member states’ fragile financing commitments that it declined to make public its detailed budget proposals.

“The fact that ESA, as a European agency, has no formal link with the European Parliament deprives ESA of the direct link with citizens that any EU policy enjoys,” the document says.

Given these difficulties, the EU proposes that ESA be brought under full EU authority in one way or another. It could be an intergovernmental organization along the lines of the European Defense Agency, or it could be transformed into an EU agency.

The document says this could be done without upending ESA’s success in securing funds that might not be available if ESA did not guarantee that the contracts would return to the sponsoring governments in the form of contracts to the governments’ national industries.

At its ministerial council here Nov. 21, ESA produced its own declaration on future relations with the EU. It too calls for closer relations with the EU, but says this can be achieved while “providing ESA member states equivalent rights and obligations whether or not they are also EU member states.”

The declaration reminded the EU that ESA has helped build a European space sector that is competitive on world markets in several areas.

The German government, which is the EU’s biggest financial contributor and vies with France for that status in ESA, has clearly stated its intention not to let ESA disappear into the EU.

Luxembourg Research Minister Francois Biltgen, in a press briefing Nov. 21 on the ESA ministerial conference results, said he intends to “voice some reservations” about the EU document as regards non-EU members in ESA. “You will probably hear me say something.”