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View from Brussels: Satellite cherry-pickers

Image credit: ESA-Pierre Carril

The United Kingdom lost access to the Galileo satellite navigation network when its EU membership ended, but as geopolitical tensions continue to rise, could Britain return to the GPS fold?

Brexit meant an end to the UK’s involvement in several of the EU’s flagship programmes, including the world-leading Galileo network and the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme, while its participation in the Horizon Europe research programme is still in doubt.

The UK’s initial deal with the EU included membership of schemes like Horizon and the Earth-observing Copernicus network, but an impasse over implementing the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol means there is now a major delay.

During those seemingly never-ending Brexit negotiations that followed the 2016 Brexit vote and which lasted almost all the way up to the 2020 deadline, membership of many of those programmes was on the table, should the UK have agreed to certain criteria.

Full participation in Galileo, however, was never likely, due to opposition from some EU members - most notably France - and in the end the British negotiators decided not to sign up to a ‘Galileo-lite’ option, without the more sensitive security aspects of the navigation, timing and positioning network.

Somewhat ironically, the British government was among those EU countries lobbying against membership for non-EU members when the UK was a part of the bloc, reportedly citing security concerns and, less vocally, industrial interests as a reason to ring-fence Galileo.

The latter issue was wholeheartedly seized upon and supported by France, which continues to champion the interests of its domestic industry, which includes Airbus, Arianespace and Safran. 

But as geopolitical tensions rise in Europe’s east with Russia’s continued posturing towards Ukraine and the Kremlin’s role in exacerbating energy prices in the West, the UK government might yet ask Brussels to let it rejoin Galileo.

That is according to MP David Morris, the chair of the parliamentary space committee, who told the Daily Express that the situation in Ukraine “will sharpen everyone's attention” and spur a rethink of how intelligence resources are managed.

“I think we'll step back from the brink and the grown-ups in the room will calm it all down,” Mr Morris said, adding that once the French presidential elections are over in April, there could be a compromise.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, has indicated that the door is not closed to the UK and that it would be willing to renegotiate some sort of membership deal.

“The European Union is open to negotiate with the UK on its participation in EU space programmes. The ball is in London, not here,” said Timo Pesonen, head of the Commission’s space department, last summer.

However, the chances of that happening any time soon still remain very slim, as it would require a complete change of tactic by the UK government and a show of tremendous good faith from the Commission and the 27 member states.

Given that progress on issues like Horizon Europe is stalled, impetus for a deal on Galileo – a more politically-charged scheme  and one with higher-stakes security issues attached - will not be forthcoming in the near future.

The UK remains a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) in any case, as the agency is not an EU institution. Its involvement in Copernicus, however, is still pegged to the outcome of the ongoing negotiation process.

As with its full exit from the EU, the UK’s delayed Copernicus membership means that there is a budget shortfall, this time totalling some €750 million. The head of ESA recently said that the money will have to be found elsewhere, perhaps from other areas that the EU budget funds.

The EU has done this in the past; in 2007, it diverted billions of euros from agricultural funds towards Galileo. It may have to pull the same trick again.

Otherwise, the EU’s space ambitions continue to trundle onwards. Eight more Galileo satellites will be put into space over the next four years, completing the first-generation network of orbiters. The last is due to reach the cosmos in 2025.

It is anybody’s guess whether a final comprehensive Brexit deal that puts all these issues to bed will have been brokered even by then. Its comparatively short history suggests that the answer is ‘no’.


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