For All (Euro)kind: how is the European Union faring in the final frontier?

Copyright ESA–S. Corvaja, 2013

by Luca Mazzini

Considering the volatile and precarious state of today’s international politics, even a well-informed reader might have missed that space, rightfully or not considered a relic of a bygone era, or a political arena where competing ideologies battled to prove their technological superiority, has been quietly making a comeback. While understandably preoccupied with what’s happening on the ground here on Earth, many countries have been making moves and eyeing with increased interest the outer reaches of our atmosphere, the Moon and what lies even further beyond. As history finds its footing again after a momentary pause and space becomes yet again openly relevant to governments worldwide one might wonder how exactly the European Union is positioned in what has already been dubbed as the New Space Race, as the treaties explicitly call for a Union-led European space policy. The answer is intricate and multifaceted, but it can be summed up by looking at the state of affairs of the challenges faced by the Union: what is coming into being (the EUSPA) is good, but it may not be enough, and what’s already there (ESA) was good at the time but may now be a political ball and chain. As space starts to incorporate security and politics in its domain yet again, decisive and (relatively) quick actions are needed to keep an edge and not to fall behind more dynamic powers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the EU is yet able to fully pick up the pace.

Europe: a spaceship divided?

It may come as no surprise that the European Space Agency itself is the biggest obstacle the European Union faces in the way of its own space initiatives (ESA). Why is that? ESA is certainly one of the most decorated, experienced and well funded space agencies on the planet, with a number of successes, both scientific and in terms of marketability (an ever pressing concern for space agencies) that is today rivaled only by NASA and Roscosmos, the successor of the Soviet Space Program. A successful venture of 22 countries, totalling half a century of fruitful collaboration and a budget second only to the Americans and the Chinese would seem a good starting point to launch a challenge to the two superpowers who are already engaged in a “fight” to the moon

Nonetheless, one critical and often forgotten detail could hinder this ambitious plan: the ESA is not part of the European Union. The slip-up is understandable: ESA operates as a collaborative, international effort between several European countries; it came along after the birth of the European Communities; it deals with technical matters that call into question economies of scale and cooperation; it even has “European” in its name! It wouldn’t be historically absurd to imagine that the ESA, or an ESA-like organization, could have formed as just another agency of the European Communities. However, the fact of the matter is that for the better part of 50 years, European space efforts have been in the hands of an international organization which is not a part of the European Union. Even though this may appear surprising, we have to keep in mind that the ESA was founded in 1975, when the global interest for space-related matters was already winding down with the detente between the USA and the USSR and the subsequent end of the first Space Race. So the ESA started to operate in an historical lull for space politics, when the full attention of European countries for cooperation was – rightfully or not – elsewhere. But even so, over the last twenty years, as the global space economy started to pick up steam, the issues with having a fully fledged space agency with its own programs and aims inside Europe but not under Union control fully came to light. 

Plans to integrate the ESA as a Union agency were supposed to come to fruition in 2014, but got bogged down, and for several years relations between the ESA and the EU have been frosty if not hostile. As European cooperation tentatively marches forward, we observe a puzzling situation, in which the resistance to increased cooperation (or, more precisely, a qualitatively different cooperation under the Union’s umbrella) does not come from Member States as we’ve grown used to, but from another international organization. Indeed, the ESA doesn’t  appreciate the EU’s encroachment on what it considers to be its rightful endeavors and policies. 

This adds complications to the matter, as the ESA has its own legitimacy borne from 50 years of successful cooperation and a considerable mission record, not to mention significant technical expertise in the matter, something which the Union lacks in its cadres. However, the EU also has a meaningful leverage of its own: it is the biggest contributor to the ESA budget with a share of 28.4%. In addition to this, the EU uses the ESA for the vast majority of its space endeavors, thus being the Agency’s biggest client: two successful examples of this collaboration are the Copernicus series of observation satellites and the most important GALILEO system, the EU’s proprietary satellite navigation system (i.e. the European answer to the GPS, which is operated by the US Air Force).

contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The EU is also keenly aware that being dependent on an external agent, even if that agent is based on the European continent, constitutes a weakness and that an effort is required to make sure that the ESA acts in accordance with the EU’s and the Member States’ security interests. We should indeed keep in mind that the interests of the European Union and those of “Europe” are not necessarily equivalent: on the contrary, they may even be at odds with each other. This awareness must be the starting point for understanding how the EU could move forward.

All things considered, it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that it took until 2021 for the idea of a closer integration between the EU and the ESA to actually get ahead, as the new Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) was signed on the 22nd of June, after rounds of negotiations that the ESA press release courteously referred to as “intense”. The FFPA outlines in detail the prerogatives and mutual responsibilities of each of three actors involved, the ESA, the Commission and the newfangled European Union Space Programme Agency (EUSPA), earmarking a significant budget for the years 2021-2027. The EUSPA had been the apple of discord during the negotiations, as the ESA perceived the transformation of the then European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA) into the more ambitious-sounding EUSPA as an attack on its prerogatives or a poorly disguised attempt at “incorporating” the ESA itself. A suspicion that might not have been unfounded, if we consider the words used by the Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton in his speech presenting the new EU Space Programme, where he noted that the EU “can rely on the excellence and expertise of our space agency, ESA”

Even so, the ESA remains an elephant in the room of Union space policy: too big to be ignored and yet especially useful because of its size. We also shouldn’t forget the ever present internal rivalries between Member States: when French President Macron flew in the US in December, he asked Vice-President Kamala Harris to put Thomas Pesquet, an experienced French astronaut, on the Artemis 3 mission, which could potentially make him the first European to walk on the moon. While a relatively minor anecdote, this episode speaks both of the proverbial disunity among Member States and space’s renewed role as a showcase of a country’s importance on the world stage. The fact that all the rivals the EU faces on the international – or sidereal – stage instead enjoy a concentration of efforts and expertise under single governmental authority certainly does not bode well for the Union’s competitiveness in the reaches of space.

EU Space Programme: one small step for the Union?

The situation isn’t all doom and gloom, as the European Space Programme (EUSP) initiative, inaugurated in 2021, could represent a late but important step forward for the Union’s approach to space. Highlighting for the first time in clear terms that space has a fundamental role to play not just in science but also in the European economy and in the security of the continent, it set aside almost a €15 bln investment for the years 2021-2027. 

The EUSP is particularly important in that not only it represents a significant increase in budget from the past years, but also because it finally puts forward a formal six-years plan, with defined and pragmatic goals that openly encompass security and strategic applications of space assets. The five main components of the EUSP will be: Copernicus; the EO (Earth Observation) constellation of satellites; the navigation systems GALILEO and EGNOS; the SSA (Space Situational Awareness) systems, used by the EU to avoid collisions between satellites; and perhaps most important, GOVSATCOM, a secure European satellite-based communication system for governments and militaries. Even the most outwardly “peaceful” of these pillar (Copernicus) has in fact significant strategic and military applications: this makes explicit the difference between the scientific interests represented by the ESA (that is exclusively interest in a peaceful use of space) and the strategic ones protected by the EU (that can’t leave behind economic and political considerations). Obviously, the gap between the rationales of  ESA and the EU is transposed in the internal political culture of the two organizations and can thus explain much of the communication difficulties that were had over the years. In addition to the EUSP, the Commission recently unveiled an absolute first in its history, a comprehensive Space Strategy for Security and Defence: this a momentous leap forward since the Strategy directs the Union’s space policy towards openly military applications, although – for now – purely defensive in nature.

Winning or losing the New Space Race?

Is all this enough to provide the EU with the clarity of purpose and capabilities to contend with the likes of the US and China? While the recent steps to cut right to the central question of the new Space Race, security, are to be lauded, the loss of efficiency produced by the fundamental weakness of divided efforts is yet to be overcome. The inefficiencies are compounded by the significant gulf in resources available to both NASA and China (which has officially a lower budget than ESA, but is posited to hide most of its available funds), as not even the significant increase in funding approved in 2021 will be able to bridge the gap, according to experts. One thing is certainly evident: the Union has a clear idea of the enormous effects that space assets have on the military and security capabilities of countries, and both the EU and ESA are cognizant of the ground that has already been lost to the USs and China. Whether the steps already taken are an indication of greater efforts to come, or a last ditch dash before dropping out of the race, only time will tell.