The European space decision-making process appears to the outside observer to be a Daedalus Labyrinth in which roams a Minotaur called “defense of national interests.” There is increasing hope, however, that the entry into force of the new treaty on the functioning of the European Union (EU) will be the Ariadne’s ball of string, and improve and simplify the governance of space activities in Europe.

Space policy in Europe depends on three actors: the European Space Agency (ESA), which is an intergovernmental organization independent of the second actor, the EU, and finally the EU and ESA member states (27 members of the EU, among whom 16 are also members of ESA, plus Switzerland and Norway, members of ESA but not of the EU).

Since the beginning of the 2000s, EU’s ambition in space has grown with its two flagship programs, Galileo and Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES). But to summarize the challenge faced by Europe since a decade ago, it should be noted that the EU has no space agency, and ESA is not a political body — hence the relationship that has developed between the two institutions, codified in an international agreement ratified in December 2003.

The objective of this framework agreement is to reinforce the complementary strengths of both institutions in the fields of research, economy, environment and security. Nevertheless, the agreement is unclear about the decision-making process as it creates only a joint secretariat, composed of civil servants of the European Commission and the ESA executive. This secretariat is in charge of preparing the joint and concomitant meetings of the Council of the EU and the ESA Council at the ministerial level (the “Space Council”). The way to make common decisions follows therefore a complicated ad hoc process.

The draft resolution to be endorsed during the Space Council meetings is prepared in an unusual and informal forum called the “quadriga,” composed of representatives from the European Commission and from ESA, the EU state in charge of the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU (currently Belgium), and the ESA presidency (currently Italy).

The second step consists of debates in another informal forum called the “high level space policy group,” composed of delegates from the 29 member states of the EU and ESA. This forum has to reach unanimous agreement on the draft resolution that will be followed by the EU and ESA formal decision-making processes — with the untold advice to adopt the text as it stands, because of the lack of time to introduce any modification in the other institution!

This ad hoc procedure makes space policy an exception. For all the other “shared competences” or responsibilities of the EU, the permanent representatives of member states in Brussels are used to prepare the Council of the EU by negotiating agreements and progresses among different sectoral policies. In a caricatural example, a state could accept the support to increase a fishing quota if its car industry gets more time to reduce CO2 emissions. This actual system in which space policy is only negotiated with itself creates more tension in the political process, and the necessity of unanimous consensus leads to the risk of reduced ambitions.

Today, the responsibility introduced by articles 4 and 189 of the Lisbon Treaty is pushing the ESA-EU relationship to a crossroad. The EU has a mandate to elaborate a European space policy, and to define and implement space programs. With its right of initiative, the European Commission (the executive body of the EU) should soon identify concrete program proposals.

The ambition of the EU to develop a space infrastructure at the service of sectoral policies and economic development will have major consequences on the governance of space activities in Europe.

First, there is the decision-making process. The expected use of space technology and downstream services to address a growing number of policies will soon lead to the involvement, formal or informal, of brand new stakeholders. These stakeholders will be from institutions related to policy fields that exploit space data (such as environment, security and transport) and from political levels traditionally not involved in space matters (regional and local authorities).

In September, the European Council officially added “Space” to the task list of the Competitiveness Council. A formal EU Space Working Party was then quickly established in order to adequately prepare the council meetings. This will most probably lead to an evolution of the role and scope of the joint ESA-EU informal Space Councils.

Then, as is the case for the other legal responsibilities of the EU, the role of European Parliament (directly elected by citizens of the EU) will be strengthened, in particular when it comes to budgetary needs. This is an interesting first change as, up until now, the political guidance was nearly exclusively given by ministers in charge of space within the member states.

Second, it is not only the political dimension of space activities that will increase, but also their scope. Space in Europe no longer will be driven nearly exclusively by research and development (R&D). This will give an increased role to the operational entities, private or public, required to meet users’ needs. The balance of power between operators and development agencies will undoubtedly be affected.

Third, ESA, which has technical and programmatic capabilities that are not available in the EU institutions, will remain at least for some time the key actor for the financing and development of space assets in Europe. Nevertheless, an evolution of its relations with the EU institutions seems desirable to allow Europe to continue to take full benefit of its strengths. The challenges are many:

  • How to legally guarantee that ESA will be the implementing agency for the development of EU space programs.
  • How to allow ESA to set up the management structures dedicated to implement programs following EU rules and procedures. In parallel, how to ensure that the EU will set up rules that take into account the nature of space activities, which are long-term and high-risk.
  • How to ensure that ESA maintains intergovernmental activities and optional programs that provide a strong incentive for member states to continue to invest directly in R&D.
  • How to allow ESA to manage both civil and defense-related programs.

It is now up to the traditional actors of space in Europe (ESA, national agencies, national authorities, etc.) to seize this historical opportunity. They will have to ensure that this evolution is founded on capabilities and strengths developed over more than 40 years by a few member states not only to preserve them but to better exploit and build on this legacy to meet the future needs of all European citizens.


Aurélien Desingly is a lecturer at the University of Artois, France. Olivier Lemaitre is an adviser to the Belgian High Representative of Space Policy. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and are not to be considered as the official positions of their respective institutions.