FFPA signing
ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher signs the Financial Framework Partnership Agreement as EU officials, including Commissioner Thierry Breton (right) look on. Credit: European Commission webcast

WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency and European Union said the signing of a long-delayed partnership agreement heralded the start of a new and more cooperative relationship.

In a ceremony June 22 in Brussels, officials with the European Commission and ESA signed the Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA), a document that governs how the two organizations will work together in programs such as the Copernicus series of Earth observation satellites and Galileo navigation satellites.

That relationship had become rocky in recent years, particularly as the EU’s space ambitions grew in recent years to include proposals for a secure communications satellite network and support for Europe’s launch industry, such as a proposed launcher alliance. But both EU and ESA leaders said the FFPA marked the beginning of friendlier relations between them.

Timo Pesonen, director general of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, said ESA’s selection of Josef Aschbacher as its new leader last December changed the course of that relationship. “We had a tête-à-tête, man-to-man meeting” in January, he said in a panel discussion after the signing ceremony. “We do not only cooperate, we work together. In this ‘fresh start’ spirit, we have worked.”

“What we see with the FFPA is the next phase of this EU-ESA cooperation,” Aschbacher said. “Together, the European Space Agency and the European Commission have built up the world’s best space programs.”

Neither Aschbacher nor Pesonen discussed in detail specific issues that delayed the completion of the FFPA during a press conference after the panel. Pesonen said that for programs like Copernicus and Galileo, ESA will remain the contracting authority. “ESA is the interface with the industry and has full autonomy in its interaction with industry,” he said.

Aschbacher said that for Copernicus in particular, jointly funded by ESA and the EU, ESA has contracting authority with some modifications “making sure that the rules of the EU financial regulations are fully incorporated.”

When the ESA Council unanimously approved the FFPA June 16, Aschbacher said that the agreement preserved the ability of ESA members who are not a part of the EU, notably the United Kingdom, to participate in Copernicus. But at the briefing officials said that UK’s full participation on Copernicus is still pending an agreement between the EU and the British government that was one of the conditions of the broader Brexit deal.

“The European Union is open to negotiating with the UK on its participation in EU space programs. The ball is in London, not here,” Pesonen said. “On Copernicus, we look forward to the adoption of the protocol on UK participation in the EU programs.”

“From my point of view, the UK is a very strong member of ESA,” said Aschbacher. “Negotiations are still ongoing, but this is certainly something that I very much welcome because it is making good use of the expertise in the UK. In terms of implementation of the program, it is much easier having the UK on board.”

Both EU and ESA said this “fresh start” was important for Europe to remain competitive in the global space industry, particularly given larger government investments in space by China and the United States. “A fresh start is a fresh start, but it needs more,” Aschbacher said, citing his desire for a European “space summit” next year, something that Pesonen said he supported.

“This is a perfect vehicle where we can express an ambition as Europe where we want to go, and how does Europe want to be positioned compared to other countries in the world,” Aschbacher said. “A fresh start is good, but we have to do much more to go beyond the fresh start to define future ambitions and programs.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...