Sunday

19th Jan 2020

Analysis

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

  • Children waving Union Jack flags on the night British astronaut Tim Peake went into space, in December 2015 (Photo: UK Space Agency)

When European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker dropped a large hint that the United Kingdom would not be able to set up a rival satellite navigation system like the EU's Galileo after Brexit, the British press were quick to pick up on it.

As UK newspapers often do, they took it personally.

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The Daily Express wrote that Juncker "took a huge swipe at Brexit Britain", while the Telegraph headlined that Juncker had said "Britain will never be able to build satellite to rival EU's Galileo".

His exact words were more nuanced, but it is hard to believe that Juncker was not thinking about Brexit when he was praising Galileo, the EU's answer to the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS).

"It is our Galileo programme that is today keeping Europe in the space race," said the commission chief in his annual State of the Union speech in mid-September.

"No single member state could have put 26 satellites in orbit, for the benefit of 400 million users worldwide. No single member state could have done this alone," he said.

But 'going it alone' is exactly what the United Kingdom is considering.

On 29 August, London announced it would spend £92m (€104m) of 'Brexit readiness money' on an 18-month study that would explore an independent alternative to Galileo.

"The government has been clear that the UK wants to remain involved in the Galileo programme, and is negotiating with the European Commission to this end," it said in a statement.

"But without the assurance that UK industry can collaborate on an equal basis now and in the future, and without access to the necessary security-related information to rely on Galileo for military functions such as missile guidance, the UK would be obliged to end its participation in the project," it added.

It is the military aspect which is a key point of contention in the Brexit negotiations about Galileo, said Jean-Jaques Tortora, director at the European Space Policy Institute, a Vienna-based think tank.

"They [the UK] are still offered reasonable access to GPS; they are still offered reasonable access to Galileo, but of course what is really at stake is the very core of the potential military applications of these systems," said Tortora.

"I can understand that when you rely on a system … to achieve such [military] objectives, then you need to ensure that the system is working properly. So they want to be inside of it," he added.

But this is exactly what is difficult for the EU to accept.

It only provides a non-EU state access to the security-relevant signals if that country signs a specific agreement – which would mean the UK would have to do the same.

Labour MEP Clare Moody told EUobserver that "much more effort" was needed to make sure that a deal is made on the EU-UK future security relationship.

She is not keen on the UK government's plan to consider its own alternative to Galileo.

"We can look around the rest of the world and see that where there are single state satellite navigation systems, they are countries like China, which frankly are very, very large countries," she said.

"I'm not saying that you couldn't do it, but the amount of resources that would have to go into it, when there is a very good existing system, would strike me as being not necessarily the best way to go," the MEP added.

"I think they would be better spending their time focussing on how we work closely with the EU on the existing system," Moody said.

Several billion euros

Space expert Tortora said that "it might be hard to justify such investments" and that Galileo had cost the EU around €10bn.

How much a UK-Galileo would cost depends on what would be its purpose, he said.

"When you talk about guiding munitions through GPS, then it requires a great deal of precision and reliability – [it is] definitely not on the cheap side."

He said the UK would have to spend "a few billion euros or thereabouts".

The possibility of a UK-owned satellite navigation system is surprising when looking at the history of Galileo.

"The US were strongly opposed to the Galileo project because they wanted to keep GPS as the sole and unique source of signal for positioning," said Tortora.

And the UK, with its special transatlantic relationship, long supported the US in this.

"When the US position changed and when finally EU and the US administration reached an agreement, then the UK position immediately moved along the same lines," he said.

If the UK and the EU do not manage to cut a Brexit deal – and thus one on Galileo – it will still be quite a while before British drivers can navigate on the streets with a UK-owned system.

"Even the government, on their own timeline, say that there is nothing practical going to come out of this for years and years to come. In the mid 2020s at the earliest," warned Moody.

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