commentary

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  Space News Business

commentary

posted: 31 January 2005
10:50 am ET


A s NASA sorts out the internal issues related to the resignation of its administrator, it also faces numerous external challenges in the upcoming year. Among them will be trans-Atlantic relations since the context for European space is evolving very quickly. An understanding of the changes in policy, organizational structure and funding at the European-level are important, since they undoubtedly are going to affect the nature of traditional European-U.S. space cooperation.

The United States since the 1970s has had a long history of significant cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA) and individual European countries on scientific and human space flight programs. The pattern of trans-Atlantic cooperation has evolved over time. At the beginning of the European space program, cooperation was a scientific and technological necessity for Europe.

Today, trans-Atlantic cooperation is not mandatory. After an initial period of European dependence on the United States due to an asymmetry in capabilities and resources, the recent reduction in this “capacity-gap” will modify traditional space cooperation patterns between Europe and the United States.

Europe has become a substantial space power with an increasing range of technological capabilities despite limited public money allocated to space programs. The United States is still Europe’s preferred partner for space cooperation, if that cooperation is carried out on an equitable basis. Europe is no longer interested in an asymmetric space relationship where European contribution is totally dependent for its success on U.S. performance.

Space activities are still fragmented, both organizationally and financially, in Europe, but since the pioneering times of the creation of various national agencies — the European Space Research Organisation , the European Launcher Development Organisation and ESA — the European space context has changed dramatically. The European space sector is now entering its fourth institutional evolution with the emergence of the European Union (EU) as the future main European space actor. The Constitutional Treaty for Europe, which includes space among the EU’s shared competencies, makes a concrete step towards acknowledging that space activities are of strategic importance for the implementation of a wide range of more general European policies in areas like transport, information, environment and security.

The future of space activities in Europe will be built on the growing relationship between the EU and ESA. The EU-ESA Framework Agreement that entered in force in May 2004 is an important step in a closer relationship between the current and the likely future dominant space levels in Europe. This framework agreement, besides regulating their cooperation in the years ahead, gives recognition to both parties that emphasizes their specific complementary and mutually reinforcing strengths — for the EU, setting policy directions for Europe; for ESA, providing the scientific and technological capabilities to implement space programs in the service of those directions.

This collaboration will allow the development of a coherent and progressive overall European space policy to support the European Community policies. That space policy will follow a user-driven approach focusing on Earth-oriented applications of direct public benefits such as Galileo, Global Monitoring for Environment and Security , the telecommunications initiative called “digital divide,” and the use of space capabilities in support of Europe’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European Security and Defence Policy .

The first joint meeting at the ministerial level of the Council of the EU and of the Council of ESA — the so-called “Space Council” established within the EC-ESA Framework Agreement — was held in Brussels Nov. 25. This was a major political milestone for space in Europe. Twenty-seven member states of the EU and ESA (plus Canada) came together to discuss the coherent and progressive development of an overall European Space Program, which is to be defined by the end of 2005.

The next Space Council, planned for April 2005, will address preliminary elements of the European Space Program and in particular is expected to define the general governance and industrial policy principles, to identify priorities, and to establish roles and responsibilities among the European Commission, ESA and national space agencies. Another important structural evolution is the recent transfer within the European Commission of responsibility for space policy from the Research Directorate to the Directorate of Enterprise and Industry, illustrating Europe’s recognition that the importance of space activities goes beyond science and research, with a strong industrial and competitive dimension including defense and security policy.

Cooperation between ESA and NASA in scientific projects represents the traditional mode of trans-Atlantic cooperation. However, the evolution of the space context in Europe, especially with ESA’s evolving position regarding security issues, will be challenging for future trans-Atlantic relations. This has been clearly illustrated by the tension between the United States and Europe over Galileo. ESA’s Agenda 2007 strategic plan states that ESA foresees future cooperation not only with NASA but also with the U.S. Department of Defense. The emergence of new concerns regarding space and security within the EU and ESA will thus involve a new axis of trans-Atlantic discussion involving a new U.S. partner, the Defense Department.

With these recent developments in the European space landscape, new perspectives are arising and need to be taken into consideration as the second Bush administration develops its space strategy. The new European dipole consisting of the EU and ESA could be a capable partner or a serious competitor for the United States, depending mainly on the U.S. attitude. The next administration needs to define a clear policy both on the civilian and the military agenda regarding Europe. That policy will have to oscillate between cooperation and competition, and that ma y have long-term consequences.

Nicolas Peter is a research assistant at the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University in Washington and researcher associate at the Laboratoire Communication et Politique in Paris.