BRUSSELS — The European Space Agency (ESA), raising the stakes in its battle with the European Commission over the future of Europe’s multibillion-dollar GMES environment-monitoring effort, has threatened to refuse to launch the first group of GMES satellites unless the commission agrees to fund the system’s operations.

The threat, made in a letter from the chairman of ESA’s Council to senior European Union (EU) officials, illustrates the growing concern at ESA and among GMES backers that what was initially viewed as a tactical move by the commission to elicit support for GMES may now in fact scuttle the program.

GMES, or Global Monitoring for Environment and Security, is a broad effort including multiple satellites and ground facilities in which ESA has already invested some 1.7 billion euros ($2.4 billion) in the past 13 years. ESA’s role has been to design and finance the development of a series of satellites, called Sentinels, and launch the first three of them.

The commission of the 27-nation European Union has spent another 1.4 billion euros to complement the ESA investment and to prepare for the start of GMES service, planned for 2014. The commission had put GMES on an equal footing with Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation effort as a “flagship” program to showcase the commission’s growing role in European space policy.

The first six Sentinel satellites are under construction and scheduled for launch starting in 2013.

But in June, the commission said it would remove GMES from its next seven-year financial program, starting in 2014, because of pressures on the overall budget at a time of financial stress in many European Union nations. The commission proposed that the 5.8 billion euros to be spent on GMES between 2014 and 2020 be provided on an a la carte basis by individual participating governments.

ESA and European government and industry officials said at the time that the commission was threatening GMES as a way of provoking European nations to plead for its reinsertion into the seven-year budget and permit the commission to increase its budget by more than the 1 percent mandated by European nations.

But in recent weeks, these officials said, it has become clear that, whatever the initial motivation, the decision to take GMES out of the multiannual funding program will be hard to reverse and may cause the program’s collapse.

Appeals from individual governments and from ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain have had no noticeable effect at the commission. Dordain and ESA Earth Observation Director Volker Liebig have said repeatedly that the agency has neither the mandate nor the money to operate GMES.

On Oct. 27, ESA played what may be its last card. The letter, from ESA Council Chairman David Williams — who also is chief executive of the United Kingdom Space Agency — represents the consensus view of ESA’s 19 member governments.

“[P]ut simply, if the EU will not be able to commit sufficient operational funding, the GMES space component will cease to exist,” the letter says. “It would also annul the value of the more than 3 billion euros of European taxpayers’ money spent to date.”

Noting that ESA must decide on a launch contract for the first Sentinel satellite in 2012 to meet a 2013 target for deployment, the letter says: “In the absence, at that time, of EU commitments for the availability of operational funding beyond 2014, we will instruct ESA not to launch the satellites.”

In a Nov. 8 interview, Williams declined to discuss the letter but confirmed that he sent it on behalf of the ESA Council.

Addressing a conference at the European Parliament here Nov. 8, Liebig said that while the 

commission has already allocated the funds needed for the first year of GMES operations, there would be no sense in launching hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of advanced environment-monitoring satellites only to have to de-orbit them a year later.

Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, told the conference that the commission would be issuing a fresh GMES proposal in the coming weeks. A draft of that proposal says the commission wants GMES to stay outside the multiannual financial framework, but be funded by all 27 European Union member governments, with each government’s participation tied to its gross domestic product.

The draft proposal further says the agency designated to manage the Galileo project also should be given management responsibility for GMES. That agency, called the GNSS Supervisory Authority, or GSA, would farm out part of the GMES work to other agencies within the European Union.

Government and industry officials who had seen the draft said they were perplexed. “Why would governments who say they cannot fund the program in one bucket say they can fund it now that it’s in another bucket?” one official said.

Several members of the European Parliament attending the conference said they would vigorously oppose the new scheme insofar as it would remove the body from GMES oversight. Programs not inside the multiyear financial envelope become “intergovernmental” efforts that do not need parliamentary review.

“These projects are being ‘de-parliamentarised,’” said Reimer Boege, a member of the European Parliament’s Budget Committee and a coordinator for the 2014-2020 budget. “That is something that this parliament will never accept.”

Antonio Preto, head of Cabinet for European Commission Vice President Antonio Tajani, whose office is coordinating the Galileo and GMES work, said eight governments have formally protested the commission’s decision to take GMES out of the multiyear budget.

But in a Nov. 9 interview, Preto said some of these governments are among those most adamant that the overall seven-year budget not be given more than a 1 percent increase compared with the previous budget. “It is a bit of a contradiction,” Preto said.

Herve Jouanjean, director general of the commission’s budget directorate, said some commission officials are worried that the problems they have encountered with Galileo might also affect GMES.

The commission has taken legal ownership of Galileo, whereas it has no formal title to GMES. But finding the funds for Galileo, which is about 40 percent over its budget, was “a very unhappy experience” for the commission, which ultimately took farm support monies to prevent Galileo from being shut down, Jouanjean told the conference Nov. 9.

The Galileo experience has tainted GMES in the eyes of some at the commission, Jouanjean said, adding that the commission’s budget structure is not well-equipped to deal with never-ending programs like Galileo and GMES. The seven-year budget proposal has set aside 7 billion euros for Galileo.

Jouanjean suggested that GMES backers take their protests to their governments.


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.