'Technological independence' is key to EU space policy

The European space programme is 'a tool of both internal and external policies', says Anna Elżbieta Fotyga.

By Anna Fotyga MEP

Anna Fotyga (PL, ECR) is a member of the European Parliament’s Security and Defence Subcommittee

29 Jan 2015

The first steps mankind made in space were the result of the cold war struggle between the US and Russia. For a long time, space was one of the many areas of competition between them. 

Although the situation today is different, countries from all over the world now participate in the space race in order to pursue technological advances. However, we are also aware of the rapidly changing international environment, as we face new challenges to common security.

The EU, as such, is a fairly new player in the space race. It was only after the Lisbon treaty came in to force that it became possible to create a meaningful EU policy in this area. As other players have been involved in this area for quite some time, the EU has to build on the experience gained by some of its member states.

There is a lot to gain - the commission’s space programme can help to modernise not only space-based technologies, some experts also indicate that it may enhance the overall reindustrialisation of Europe. Galileo was expected to successfully compete with the US global positioning system, but sadly, it did not fulfil our expectations. Together with the Copernicus earth surveillance programme, they are the first, and so far only, major infrastructure projects managed by the European commission.

"The commission’s space programme can help to modernise not only space based technologies, some experts also indicate that it may enhance the overall reindustrialisation of Europe"

Massive investments in scientific research and the space programme, in the range of up to €17bn and €20bn respectively, are expected to create spin-off effects in other sectors, to become drivers of innovation and to help European industry regain a leading role on the world stage.

While the origins of space exploration were strictly related to military goals and applications, they have quickly proven their worth for civilian purposes. Despite a different geopolitical situation existing today, the space race is still very important for military reasons. This is something that has been discussed in one of the security and defence subcommittee meetings. 

One of the conclusions which arose from the meeting was that, while the EU cannot directly invest in military areas, there are numerous other fields that can benefit from greater European engagement. Until recently, the main goal of the European space programme was to gain technological independence from our long-time strategic partner, the US, and to be able to develop our own satellite navigation capabilities.

Paradoxically, this pushed Europe into the arms of Russia, whose credibility left much to be desired but had the means to deliver EU satellites into orbit. Yet, subsequent failed launches due to flaws in Russian rockets proved that this cooperation is very costly for the EU and brings very little in terms of tangible results. 

For instance, in May 2014, Express AM4R, which was to be Europe’s most powerful communication satellite and worth €238m, was lost because the Russian proton-M rocket exploded. This shows that the EU has to choose its partners wisely, not only to prevent the waste of EU taxpayers’ money, but also any loss of credibility as an important actor in space.

EU actions in this field should also be coherent, with general policies and principles applied in other areas which, under current circumstances, would put closer cooperation with Russia under question.

The examples described earlier show clearly that the European space programme is a tool of both internal and external EU policies. If pursued wisely, it will bring benefits both for the EU on the international stage, and for the industrial and scientific development of its member states.

The vision of technological independence should not, however, weaken relations with the US and make Europe dependent on a country which has proven - and is still proving - to be very unreliable.

 

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