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22nd Feb 2019

EU tug of war over Prague-based space agency

  • Artist's impression of a Galileo satellite. The project's headquarters are in Prague (Photo: European Space Agency/Pierre Carril)

Members of the European Parliament will discuss a proposal on Monday (8 October) that would increase the roles of an EU satellites agency - and could lead to a possible institutional clash with the independent European Space Agency.

The plan comes from the European Commission, and it would rebrand the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency into a European Union Agency for the Space Programme – which sounds very similar to 'European Space Agency'.

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  • 'There needs to be clarity about the different roles of the different bodies,' said centre-left British MEP Clare Moody (Photo: European Parliament)

"The European Space Agency has been doing a magnificent jobs for years," centre-left British MEP Clare Moody told EUobserver.

"We shouldn't be trying to override that or step into the way of that. There needs to be clarity about the different roles of the different bodies," she added.

The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organisation to which most, but not all, EU member states belong – and which also counts non-EU members Norway and Switzerland among its ranks. It has 22 members.

The EU has 28 members, until the United Kingdom – which post-Brexit will remain an ESA member – leaves next year.

It has dozens of agencies dealing with specific policy areas, including the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (sometimes abbreviated as GNSS agency, and sometimes as GSA).

The GSA – which runs the Galileo and EGNOS satellite programmes – has its headquarters in the Czech capital Prague. The organisation's mission is "to ensure that European citizens get the most out of Europe's satellite navigation programmes".

Last June, the European Commission proposed that the GSA be beefed up and given more tasks.

Some MEPs however are worried that the commission is going beyond what it is allowed under the EU treaty.

German centre-right MEP Sven Schulze warned that the extension of some of the tasks "jeopardises the existing division of tasks between the EU and the ESA and would lead to the unnecessary duplication of structures".

The commission proposed that the Prague-based agency should have a bigger role in the EU-ESA joint earth observation programme Copernicus.

Labour MEP Moody, who is following the file for her centre-left group, the Socialist & Democrats, visited the agency in the Czech capital last month. She said that the EU should have a "coordinated and cohesive approach to the satellite programmes".

But when asked why the status quo needed to change, Moody did not have a clear answer.

"Oh, no, look, don't get me wrong, Copernicus is an excellent satellite programme, and we should be very, very proud of the work that Copernicus has done. That is not the point that I am making. It is that GSA also has a role with that to play in the future."

But if ain't broke, why fix it, EUobserver asked?

"I haven't looked at that point in detail. I wasn't looking at that point when we were there and I can't give you that detailed response on that," she said.

Space has traditionally been a policy area where EU member states retained a great deal of national sovereignty, and the way the ESA has been set up reflects that.

However, the EU has increasingly become more involved in space, in particular through the satellite programmes, which receive EU funding.

Sources from national space agencies told EUobserver off-the-record that the proposal for a beefed-up European Union Agency for the Space Programme has been met with criticism from member states, and that ESA had sent a letter to the commission about the proposal.

A spokeswoman for ESA confirmed that a letter had been sent to member states, with the commission in copy, but refused to disclose the letter.

Budget

The commission said that the Prague agency should be allocated €16bn in the period 2021-2027, of which it had to spend €500m in the areas of space situational awareness (SSA) and Govsatcom.

SSA relates to mapping what is out there in the earth's orbit and deals - among other things - with preventing damage by space debris.

Govsatcom is the field of governmental satellites communication that relates to secure communications for areas like crisis management and maritime safety.

Centre-right Italian MEP Massimiliano Salini, who is in charge of steering the legislative proposal through parliament, proposed that instead of €500m for both, the agency should spend €600m on each.

Staff

Another issue that remains is whether the Prague-based agency is able to attract the required staff to handle these new tasks.

In 2017, the EU parliament expressed concern over the high staff turnover that the agency was facing, blaming it mostly on "difficulties in attracting and retaining key staff in a very competitive and technical segment of the employment market, essentially due to the location of its headquarters".

Because living in Prague is much cheaper than in Brussels, EU agency staff based there receive a lower salary, through an instrument called the correction coefficient mechanism.

But a spokeswoman for the agency said that the situation was improving.

She noted that while in 2015 some 26 people were recruited and 14 left; in 2018 28 were recruited and only eight left.

"This shows a positive trend which is further confirmed by the continuing overall growth in the GSA staffing level," she said.

The spokeswoman also stressed that some GSA staff is working in countries across the EU: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands and Spain.

"The correction coefficient mechanism is certainly unhelpful, but the GSA has demonstrated that it is able to first recruit and then to retain and develop a highly motivated, skilled and effective team," she said.

MEP Moody said the issue of staff turnover was not discussed during her visit to the agency last month.

While she conceded that staffing was "a fundamental issue, particularly as more is being asked of the agency as well", she did not clearly answer whether she was confident that the agency would be able to hire and retain staff if it grows to the size the commission suggested.

Moody merely stressed that the EU institutions should give the agency sufficient budget to function well.

The GSA spokeswoman said it was "premature" to talk about the number of staff a beefed up agency would require, but said the agency was "excited" by the proposed new roles and responsibilities.

"We are convinced however that there needs to be a strong link between tasks and staffing, together with a mechanism in the regulation to enable this: if tasks increase, so must staffing, and the reverse also," she said.

Both national governments – meeting in the Council of the EU – and the European Parliament need to agree with the commission's proposal before it can become law.

EU's new strategy shuns space exploration

The commission wants to focus on the commercial potential of space rather than the educational or scientific benefits, much to the annoyance of some MEPs.

Analysis

A post-Brexit rival to Galileo? Possible, but expensive

The United Kingdom and the EU need to figure out how much access the UK will have to the EU-funded satellite navigation system after Brexit. Now the UK will study whether to set up its own system.

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