urope and space are two serious matters, both of which are very difficult to define precisely. So it will come as no surprise if a European Space Policy leaves the distant observer or the average European citizen puzzled.

Without a space policy Europe has gone pretty far. The international space organizations created in Europe, including Eutelsat, Eumetsat and the European Space Agency (ESA), were all successful and are still around.

ESA in particular provided an efficient governance system between the national space agencies. Europe’s space transportation infrastructure is second to none; its space industry is very competitive; its space science program has been extremely efficient both in Earth and space sciences; and the breadth of space technologies mastered by Europe is impressive, in some cases better than in the United States.

So why is the European space policy necessary? One driver is clearly the dominance and example set forth by the United States. Indeed in the United States, thanks to continuous and large annual government space budget – estimated by the Space Foundation to have been worth about $57 billion in 2005 – space is vital to intelligence, defense, security exploration and, last and least, science. While the European gross domestic product is equivalent to that of the United States, the integrated European space budget, although second in the world, reaches 6 billion euros ($8.1 billion). There is in space an order of magnitude of resources – and ambition – between the two economic superpowers.

Another driver is the swift emergence of China in space. Not only does China have a space work force of at least 200,000 people, plans for monitoring global change from space and its own navigation system, but it already has moved into space fields that are still foreign to Europe: In human spaceflight China launched its own men into space, and in military space China has performed a much criticized but impressive anti-satellite test. China has the potential to wake up Europe.

Space now is understood at the political level as a strategic tool for any advanced society that expects to become or to stay relevant as a global power. China understands that. For Europe it still was unclear because it was not specifically stated. The joint communication by the European Commission (EC) and ESA, supported by the European Council, has the great merit of recognizing the importance of space, including for exploration and for defense.

However, recent budgets of the main national space agencies – ESA’s main stakeholders – have been stagnant at best. Lately we have seen efficient yet hypocritical rhetoric saying that space infrastructures have to be financed by Europe. This rationale allowed for decreased spending for national space agencies – and as a result, a decreased ESA budget – while no space budget was specifically added to the EC. The European space policy ultimately aims to fund a substantial part of space infrastructure through the current EC budget, which already has begun with the Galileo and Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programs.

Space is vital both for the common defense and for the economy of the European Union. Indeed we are now in the post-post-Cold War era, living in the post-post-agricultural societies. Since ESA was created during the Cold War to launch peaceful European space programs, military uses of space have been beyond its mandate.

The EC is about free trade and open competition, and is famous foremost for its common agriculture policy and associated budget. This space policy is therefore also an affirmation that both ESA and the EC have to adapt to the new global environment.

For ESA, it is a question of leaving the policy leadership to the EC in the hope of becoming the European Space Administration, a NASA-like body somewhere within the EC. For the EC, the issue is that for the short-term it will not be able to provide sufficient funding for space, and will need to share the burden and cooperate with ESA, Eumetsat and the national space agencies.

ESA’s experience in dealing with the national agencies and its ability to manage international development programs is recognized, but this cooperation is difficult from the onset because of the two different governance structures. Furthermore the peaceful nature of ESA might limit progress on dual use systems such as GMES and Galileo. Finally, for the EC it will be difficult to tolerate for very long the rule of just return, which is more and more contested.

The European space policy is a good thing for Europe that will trigger positive change in governance and promote integration. As with most policy documents, there is no timeline. Galileo will be the first real test. However, a European vision for space still is missing. The bold report on space “Daring or Decline” from the task force between the French Parliament and Senate frames this issue with amazing clarity. Without the right political leadership able to create a dynamic and bold reaction in Europe this space policy will follow the fate of other such documents, and Europe will fall behind.

Vincent G. Sabathier is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.