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26th Feb 2024

Brexit could affect UK space industry

  • A Brexit would not prevent Britons like Timothy Peake from going into space. It could however cause UK industry to miss out on some business (Photo: NASA/Robert Markowitz)

The director-general of the European Space Agency hopes that British people will choose to stay members of the European Union.

“I'm a strong believer in Europe, and I hope they will decide in favour,” Johann-Dietrich Woerner told journalists in Prague on Monday (9 May).

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But if the UK referendum on 23 June does end with a majority of voters asking to leave the EU, as some polls indicate, that would not mean the end of the UK's cooperation with other European nations on space activities.

The European Space Agency is an intergovernmental organisation, separate from the European Union. There is no requirement for ESA members to be part of the EU, noted Woerner.

Two ESA members, Switzerland and Norway, are not EU states. There is even a non-European country with close ties with ESA: Canada is a so-called associate member.

Formally speaking, nothing would have to change with regard to the UK's membership of ESA in case of a Brexit. But ESA and the EU are closely linked.

“There is so much beyond 'formally speaking'. What do we do with Copernicus?”, noted Woerner.

The €4.3 billion Copernicus programme is a joint initiative by ESA and the EU which is made up of several Earth observation missions. Two weeks ago, its fourth satellite was launched from Guyana.

The programme is one of the most-discussed topics at this week's Living Planet symposium, being held in Prague.

The Copernicus project provides data on issues ranging from climate change to oil drilling opportunities. Once in space, the satellites are owned by the EU.

Volker Liebig, director of Earth observation programmes at ESA, told journalists at the conference many things are unclear if there is a Brexit.

“The intergovernmental structures would be more or less stable in this respect,” he said.

“But Copernicus is an example where we have a communitarian component and an intergovermental component,” he said, noting that it is unclear what will happen to the communitarian (EU) part. He added that if there is political will, there can be a resolution.

His boss, Woerner, voiced similar optimism. “I'm sure the [European] commission will find a solution for it,” he said.

However, Woerner noted that a Brexit would have “a negative effect” on the British space industry.

If an ESA programme is funded by the EU, or partly funded, any contracts for that part can only be granted to companies from an EU country.

“One thing is clear: contracts go to the countries which are part of the European Union for all budgets coming from the European Union”, said Liebig. The only exception is if a certain product or service is not available in the EU.

By way of reference, an evaluation of Canada's cooperation agreement with ESA published in 2015, the Canadian government noted that its non-membership of the EU has caused some “challenges”.

The report said that “there is evidence that Canadian officials will need to open discussions with the EU in tandem with ESA in negotiating the next Canada/ESA Cooperation Agreement prior to 2019 if Canada wishes to maximize access to both the ESA and EU space markets.”

Jim Carter, Europe Space Business director at outsourcing company Serco, doesn't think there will be a Brexit.

However, if there is one, he told EUobserver at the Prague event, the UK would also need to find a way to continue participating in science programme Horizon2020, and navigation programme Galileo.

“Maybe two years is a little optimistic for negotiating our exit,” he said, referring to the expected time period needed to conclude the divorce talks between the UK and the EU.

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