Commentary | European Space Policy: 2 Years After Lisbon

by and

The European Union is facing many challenges: its aging population, the management of the public debt, its energy dependence, the structural weakness of its investment in research and development, global environmental challenges, and a lack of political leadership on the world scene. A sound and ambitious space policy will not be the magic wand to overcome these challenges, but it can certainly give Europe some indispensible tools to operate wisely in an increasingly globalized world and to boost its efforts in research and development.

In this context, the entry into force of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU) in December 2009 blew a wind of hope for the European space policy. As we have shown — and hoped — in Space News [“European Space Policy at a Crossroad,” Nov. 22, 2010, page 19], this new treaty, signed in Lisbon, Portugal, should have been a way to exit the labyrinth of the decision-making process for space policy in the EU. Unfortunately, instead of using the Ariadne ball of string to escape the institutional Daedalus maze, the European space policy stakeholders preferred to transform it in a new Gordian knot!

The EU, the European Space Agency (ESA) and their member states always proclaim their goodwill to cooperate. Nevertheless, instead of simply implementing the treaty and using the momentum to start moving ESA toward the EU framework, the EU and ESA renewed their international agreement for four more years, cluttering the community method with unnecessary procedures. Behind the concrete successes of the collaborations between ESA, the EU and national agencies (for example, the painstaking implementation of Galileo) lies a time-consuming power struggle, fueled by a competition for legitimacy.

Two recent elements have aggravated the situation. In 2011, the European Commission (EC) issued a new communication entitled “Towards a Space Strategy for the European Union that Benefits its Citizens” (in 2007 the EC issued a communication more boldly entitled “European Space Policy,” so apparently being granted a competence in space policy did not help the EC to feel more self-assured in this matter). Although intelligent in its analysis and recommendations, this “pre-strategy” did not propose any concrete instruments for implementation: the first pitfall. A second pitfall, much more serious, appeared three months later: last June, when the EC proposed to have the European Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth observation program financed outside the future European budget. The EC is, quite irresponsibly, proposing to have this program managed through a still-to-be-negotiated — and inevitably cumbersome — intergovernmental agreement, which would consequently take it away from the democratic control of the European Parliament.

We are therefore faced, on the one hand, with one of the stakeholders, the European Commission, which is losing credibility in a way inversely proportional to the resources it proposes to implement its responsibilities — and its main responsibility is definitely to ensure the successful deployment and sustainable exploitation of operational systems at the service of citizens and public policies.

On the other hand, we have the European Space Agency, a very efficient research-and-development agency but also, by default, a nearly undisputed opinion leader in space policy in Europe for the last 40 years. And obviously ESA does not intend to let the policymaking escape its control. Hence, for example, its determination to continue to organize Space Councils (informal joint meetings of the Council of ESA and the EU). ESA is apparently unaware that the very odd process used to adopt political resolutions in this frame further contributes to space being perceived as an isolated policy, not being taken seriously enough by decision-makers in policies such as foreign affairs, security and defense or environment. One has to attend a meeting of the “High-Level Space Policy Group,” — where delegates from the member states negotiate their positions under the co-chairmanship of civil servants from the European Commission and the executive of ESA — to understand that the decision-making process is most certainly the weirdest that exists in Europe.

The lack of proper governance for space in Europe, which was last year an issue “limited” to the relationship between ESA and the EU, is now becoming even more complicated by the power struggle rivalry between the Commission and the Council of the EU. The former has actually removed GMES from its budget proposal as part of the tough conflict that opposes it to the latter regarding the resources made available by EU member states and the different political priorities of the two institutions.

But today, while most member states waste time and energy to make sure that the competence of the EU in space does not threaten their national ambitions, while the EC fails to understand the full extent of the strategic importance of space for Europe, and while ESA tries to control the decision-making process, the European space sector is being overtaken by other space powers. The one that most recently understood faster than Europe the crucial importance to monitor Earth’s evolution from space was Nigeria.

This knot must be cut.

Recent declarations by several members of the European Parliament and member states regarding GMES give us some reasons to hope.

Aurélien Desingly is a lecturer at University of Artois in France. Olivier Lemaitre is the representative of the European Space Industry association in Brussels. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and are not to be considered as the official positions of their respective institutions.