Concept art of a Galileo satellite

UK shut out from future of Galileo satellite navigation project

Image credit: Pierre Carril/ESA/PA Wire

Before the UK could negotiate to continue in a privileged position with the Galileo project, the ESA Council voted to begin procurement for its next stage, shutting out British companies.

Galileo is a global navigation satellite system under development by the EU through the European Space Agency (ESA). The €10bn (£8.8bn) project is intended to provide a global positioning system with high precision; an alternative to GPS (US), GLONASS (Russia) or BeiDou (China). The free system could be used for position, navigation and timing by civilians as well as for government and military purposes. Most of the 30 satellites have already been launched and the system is on track to be completed by 2020.

While ESA is, on paper, independent from the EU, 20 out of 22 of its member states are also EU members and it serves as the EU’s procurement body for space programs.

This week, the ESA Council set out the process of procurement for the next generation of satellites, with a view to completing them by 2024. In January, the EU warned that companies based in the UK would be excluded from bidding for sensitive contracts. Now, a simple majority of EU member states has voted in favour of pushing forward with the bidding process.

From now on, the UK will be treated like any other non-EU (“third”) country and will have “observer” status on key decisions relating to the project. A number of British companies, including CGI UK, which have played a role in developing the technology for Galileo, will no longer be involved.

Sam Gyimah, the UK minister for universities, science, research and innovation, had been pushing for a delay to the vote in order to negotiate British involvement in the next stage of the Galileo project.

He had threatened that the UK could be “obliged” to step away from the project if British companies were not granted “full, fair and open industrial involvement”, and accused the EU of putting security at risk by continuing with their vote at the ESA Council. Meanwhile, a paper presented to negotiators and cited by Brexit minister David Davis warned that restricting UK involvement could lead to delays and an additional cost of approximately €1bn (£880m).

The European Commission has maintained that to give way to UK demands for privileged access to the military-grade project would be a loss of “strategic autonomy”.

Following the vote, Gyimah repeated threats that the UK was willing to step away from the project and pursue a rival satellite positioning system, potentially with other international partners. Chancellor Philip Hammond has also suggested that the UK could build its own satellite system if excluded from Galileo, and the Financial Times reported that he had suggested “sabotaging” the project by blocking tech transfer between the UK and EU member states involved with Galileo.

The UK has so far paid £1bn towards the project. The UK government has – among other threats – suggested that it could seek a refund of its contributions to the satellite system.

“The government has been clear that our preference is to contribute fully to Galileo as part of a deep security partnership with the EU and that negotiations should be allowed to run their course. By forcing through this vote, while excluding UK companies from the contracts on security grounds, the European Commission has put this at risk,” Gyimah said.

“There is an option on the table that would benefit both the UK and EU. If that is not accepted by the EU, we are a proud and confident nation and will be looking at all alternatives.”

The UK military will continue to have access to Galileo’s secure signal following the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc and UK companies may in some cases be permitted to manufacture receivers for the signal.

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