PARIS — European Union governments on May 26 agreed to delay any decision on the EU’s future relations with the European Space Agency pending further studies of how changes would affect Europe’s space industrial base.

Meeting in Brussels, the EU Competitiveness Council appeared to remove from consideration earlier proposals that would have transformed the 20-nation ESA into a European Union agency. 

This idea had met with vocal opposition from Germany and Britain, and perhaps others, which like ESA’s current geographic-return rule. Under this rule, a government’s financial contribution to a given program determines the amount of contracts awarded to its national industry.

The EU Commission awards contracts on a stricter value-for-money basis, which French officials say may play to the advantage of French industry.

ESA officials have said they are already making the geographic-return rule more flexible to favor competitive bids, but that doing away with it entirely would cause many nations to cut their space spending and direct the resources to their national space budgets.

The council said it agreed with the commission’s recent assessment that “transforming ESA into an EU agency would require political consensus that may be difficult to reach in the foreseeable future.”

Having set aside the more radical option, the council wants further study of how ESA work for the commission — in the current Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programs, and others in the future — could be subject to different rules inside ESA through the creation of an “EU pillar.”

Exactly how this would work is not yet clear, which is why the council asked for more studies of it.

A second, more-modest alternative would modify the current ESA-EU convention and change very little in the short term. But over time, ESA “would work on the progressive alignment of its accounting, internal control and audit procedures with the corresponding EU rules,” according to a commission document describing this option.

Paris-based ESA’s member nations include Switzerland and Norway, which are not EU members. Canada is an associate ESA member. The agency is growing and agency officials expect that ultimately all 28 current EU nations will join ESA.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.