Marian-Jean Marinescu interview: Europe's place in space

Veteran Romanian MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu believes the EU needs to take urgent action to ensure its strategic autonomy in space. He talks to Andreas Rogal about what needs to be done to prevent Europe from falling behind in the new space race
Marian-Jean Marinescu | Photos by Natalie Hill

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

22 Feb 2022

Few, if any, members - past and present - of the European Parliament can claim to have done more for a European space policy than EPP Group deputy Marian-Jean Marinescu. An aerospace engineer by profession, Marinescu entered politics in the early nineties on local and later national level, and was first elected to the European Parliament in 2007, when his country Romania acceded to the European Union.

Having been a long-standing member, and now chair, of Parliament’s Sky & Space Intergroup, he cites his involvement as rapporteur on the EU’s Galileo Global Positioning System (GPS) as the highlight of his efforts to date. At the same time, it is a source of frustration to him, as the reality of maintaining the system has - from the very outset - highlighted the shortcomings of Europe’s place in space.

“It would be a waste of money and time to try to make a spaceport from the very beginning, as some have suggested. We have a spaceport in Kourou, and the EU should play its part in developing the base there and securing it, providing launch autonomy”

He was present at the launch of two Galileo satellites in 2011 - on a Russian Soyuz rocket, as the French Ariane was not fit for action at the time - at the French space port in Kourou, and he remembers that “we had to wait for hours, as the Americans had to tell us if the satellites were placed correctly”. 

Despite Galileo being in orbit and live since 2016, Europe still has no proper map of what exactly is up there and where. With an estimated 60,000 satellites in earth orbit, along with a largely unknown quantity of space debris, mapping and managing – developing a common strategy for Space Traffic Management (STM) - has become pressing, Marinescu argues “Firstly, to be able to determine where and when you launch by yourself, and secondly to be aware of where there could be problems. Given that it will become very crowded up there, to launch a satellite and find an available place in orbit will become more and more difficult.” 

As an example for problems worth monitoring if Europe’s satellites are to be kept safe, he points to a recent Russian operation gone awry. In November, Russia destroyed one of its old satellites in an anti-satellite missile test, creating a cloud of space debris in an area of space through which the International Space Station (ISS) regularly passes, putting not only the ISS but also many satellites at risk. 

“I am disappointed that they didn’t [consider the space industry for a Joint Undertaking], because space technology is so very important for the future. Currently, already almost 10 percent of GDP in the EU depends on it”

Turning back to earth, Marinescu strongly advocates for Kourou, in French Guiana, to become a fully-fledged European spaceport. “It would be a waste of money and time to try to make a spaceport from the very beginning, as some have suggested. We have a spaceport in Kourou, and the EU should play its part in developing the base there and securing it, providing launch autonomy.”

In the past, such autonomy had not been deemed essential, Marinescu explains, because Russia and the USA were the only players and relations on space enterprise were relatively friendly with both. Today, however, the situation has changed dramatically. Not only are India and China in the mix - the latter he believes are “unstoppable … they already have a space station up there, and they will go forward” – but also increasing numbers of private companies developing their own capabilities.

The geopolitical and the technological realities of today should provide for a “good moment” to realise that the EU has to get its act together in space, “because we have seen what private industry in the United States can do, they have provided internet in Europe, instead of the EU providing internet in Europe”. And looking to Russia’s growing assertiveness, he remarks that “it is not a surprise at all to me, because I’m Romanian, and Romanians know Russia well. Very well, unfortunately”. 

Apart from an EU Space Traffic Management strategy as the first step to achieve launching autonomy, Marinescu believes that the second-most pressing space policy project is for Europe to establish secure connectivity of its own. Partly because it would “complete the requirements for aviation”, in terms of tracking and enabling more sustainability, but also for national security reasons. “We have to make sure that nobody will look into our conversations and our things, into our ‘kitchen’, as it were”. 

On Russia’s growing assertiveness: “It is not a surprise at all to me, because I’m Romanian, and Romanians know Russia well. Very well, unfortunately”

But national security is looked upon by many Member States as not something to be shared in an EU context, particularly by their defence ministries. For Marinescu, this is an outdated mindset, bound for failure. “They have to look around. It’s true that there is only ever one state we are facing, be it the United States or China or India, and there’s 27 of us, but we will not succeed in facing up to any of them if we are not together”.

Yet a stubborn belief in national capabilities, combined with a reluctance to share data for fear of revealing secrets - not only by defence forces but also on the part of industry - lie at the heart of the European space policy not fulfilling its potential yet, he believes.

And that it is particularly regrettable that the space industry has not been considered, let alone chosen, for a Joint Undertakings(JU) in the Horizon programme in the EU’s Multiannual Framework (MFF) 2021-2027, which would have generated a substantial amount of money through a European Commission - industry public-private partnership.

“I am disappointed that they didn’t do it, because space technology is so very important for the future. Currently, already almost 10 percent of GDP in the EU depends on it. So, you have to take care of the actual systems that are working and, at the same time, develop new ones for the future. To achieve this, you have to invest.” To have stopped at the level of the much smaller-scale Joint Technological Initiative (JTI) was an “opportunity lost”, he concludes.

At least on the issue of secure connectivity, the Commission has started working on proposals and is conducting a consultation process with stakeholders, which he welcomes. “Let’s see what the outcome of the consultation process will be and what the Commission will be proposing as a governance structure for secure connectivity. In the end, we will need a political decision, not from the European Parliament but from the Member States.”

“Let’s see what the outcome of the consultation process will be and what the Commission will be proposing as a governance structure for secure connectivity. In the end, we will need a political decision, not from the European Parliament but from the Member States”

Much has been made of the potential of space technology to help with the EU’s efforts to combat climate change and ‘greening’ industries, and Marinescu agrees that this is possible. In the short term, most notably by using the two flagship space programmes Galileo and Copernicus, the earth monitoring system. They are safely anchored in the MFF but need the right investment decisions:

“When I was rapporteur for Galileo, I was fighting a lot for money for applications. I succeeded in getting €110m, because I said at the time there is a genius like Picasso out there and nobody can see it. So, let’s use it on the Earth. There are still a lot of applications that could be developed, and I hope that the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) will do this.” Marinescu once again attended and contributed to the annual EU Space Conference on 25-26 January in Brussels. To him, its main message is to be “a signal for the Member States that they have to arrive at a political agreement, at least for those two projects, Space Traffic Management and secure connectivity”.

Parliament, and in particular the Space & Sky Intergroup, will continue to push for a common European space policy that serves the purpose so badly needed for our times, to establish the European Union as a space power, Marinescu promises. But to achieve it, “we will all have to pull together”. 

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