Continued British participation in “Galileo” is not guaranteedby / May 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
If you were already struggling to grasp the earthly complexities of leaving the European Union, hold fast because Brexit has gone into orbit. Following reports that the UK could soon be cut out of the EU’s Galileo satellite programme, attention has recently shifted towards post-Brexit cooperation on space projects, including speculation that the British government could launch its own satellite system. But what is this all about?
Galileo is the EU’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). Developed by the non-EU European Space Agency (ESA), it is funded and owned by the EU and supervised by the European Commission. It is scheduled to become fully operational in 2020 and, thanks to the anti-jamming and anti-spoofing capabilities of its Public Regulated Service (PRS) encrypted core, it should provide the EU with an alternative, and more accurate, navigation system to the American GPS. Some of Galileo’s services are open to the mass-market, but only member states have an automatic right to access its encrypted system.
The UK will generally remain part of EU agencies and bodies during the Brexit transition, and it could largely continue participating in the Galileo programme. But with uncertainty reigning supreme over future UK-EU relations, one immediate consequence of Brexit is that Galileo’s back-up security monitoring centre, which was set to be based near Southampton, will be relocated to Spain. Additionally, reports have recently emerged that continued British participation in the encrypted aspect of the programme could end, even during the transition period.
Article 122 (7b) of the draft Withdrawal Agreement’s section dealing with transition arrangements—which the British government has agreed to—grants the EU the possibility of excluding the UK, which is due to become a “third country” post-Brexit, from the PRS on security grounds. This would mean preventing UK companies from working on sensitive information pertaining to Galileo from March 2019, in the absence of an agreement dictating otherwise. Many companies have already started taking steps to prepare for this eventuality.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has reportedly been instructed by the European Commission to plan for the scenario that the UK is no longer directly involved in Galileo. It should be noted here that throughout the Brexit negotiations the European Commission has told various other EU bodies and regulatory agencies to plan for the possibility of “no deal,” and the end of UK participation. The exact nature of the UK’s future involvement in Galileo will ultimately depend on the details of the future relationship.
However, if the UK were to be frozen out of the PRS, this could have significant implications not only economically but, perhaps more importantly, (geo)politically. Galileo has several applications, including for military purposes. Access to Galileo’s encrypted system was meant to reduce the dependence of EU countries, including the UK, on other countries’ GNSS, particularly American GPS. From a British perspective, UK exclusion could push it further towards privileging closer cooperation with the United States over a UK-EU security partnership in the future.
In an early signal of the potential security repercussions of Brexit, the British government has threatened to leave Galileo altogether if it is not granted access to its encrypted data, and reports suggest it is even considering developing its own satellite system. While the UK has the capacities to develop its own programme, this would be extremely costly for a country to do alone and requires time—the development phase of Galileo started in 2002. Reaching an agreement with the EU on continued participation would clearly be more convenient and consistent with the UK’s ambition of deep and special future partnership with the EU.
The UK’s participation in the EU’s satellite programmes after Brexit—not only Galileo, but also the Copernicus earth-observation programme—should be possible even as a non-EU country. As an example, Norway currently has two (non-voting) members on the administrative board of the European GNSS Agency that oversees the day-to-day working of Galileo and actively participates in it. Switzerland also has an extensive Cooperation Agreement with the EU on Galileo.
The key question revolves around the UK’s ability to take part in the PRS. This would also be possible in principle. The EU foresees the possibility of third counties’ participation in the encrypted system—with the exception of a limited amount of extremely sensitive information—provided that an agreement establishing the details of such cooperation is concluded.
It should be stressed that the UK is not the only party that would benefit from a deal. The EU has an incentive too; leaving the UK and its companies’ unique expertise out of Galileo’s PRS would likely increase costs and lead to further delays for a programme in which the EU has hugely invested and is already way behind the original schedule. And indeed the British government is already taking steps to prevent key expertise being transferred to the EU in order to maximise the disruption a UK departure would cause to Galileo.
The question is a highly political one. Both Norway and the US have applied for access to encrypted data, but this has so far not been granted. Cooperation with the EU on the PRS programme would also require a security of information agreement between the UK and the EU. Once again, this shows that the question of British participation in Galileo cannot easily be separated from agreeing the terms of the broader future relationship, which the UK and the EU should move on to discuss as soon as possible.
Ultimately the real problem might be one of timing; if no deal is reached soon, the UK space industry is set to lose out, as decisions with medium-term implications are taken now. The political consequences for the future UK-EU security partnership could be significant.