Work of the European and UK Space Agencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

4  ESA and the EU

The EU's role in space

30.  The Treaty of Lisbon established a legal basis for the EU to pursue a European space policy.[90] The EU may therefore "promote joint initiatives, support research and technological development and coordinate the efforts needed for the exploration and exploitation of space", and to do so it should "establish any appropriate relations with the European Space Agency".[91] Augusto Gonzalez, Head of Space Policy Unit, European Commission, told us that "the priority of the European Union is to make sure that whatever we do in space delivers benefits for citizens".[92] The EU's presence in the space sector has grown significantly in recent years, and an estimated €12 billion is expected to be spent on its space policies from 2014 to 2020.[93] The EU has three major space programmes: Galileo, its satellite navigation programme, Copernicus, an Earth observation programme, and EGNOS, the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service.[94] Whilst these are EU programmes, ESA has been tasked with delivering much of the technical output for these programmes.[95]

A "rapprochement" of ESA and the EU

31.  In its Communication Establishing appropriate relations between the EU and the European Space Agency[96] the European Commission outlined five factors it considered to be "structural obstacles" in its relationship with ESA.[97] These were:

·  "Mismatch of financial rules": the EU's Financial Regulation requires procurement for EU programmes to be carried out according to "the strict principle of best value".[98] In contrast, ESA operates a policy of geographic return, whereby the contracts secured by industries in each Member State should be proportionate to that Member States' contributions to the organisation.[99] The Commission argues that "this has given rise to difficulties, particularly whenever programmes are funded through mixed ESA and EU appropriations".[100]

·  "Membership asymmetry": ESA's membership includes 18 EU Member States alongside Switzerland and Norway.[101] Its membership therefore significantly overlaps with, but does not exactly match, that of the EU. The Commission argues that as ESA undertakes increasing amounts of work in the delivery of the EU's space programmes, this asymmetry gives non-EU members of ESA "disproportionate leverage",[102] as "member states who are not members of the European Union can cast a vote and influence a decision-making process on fundamental matters in EU programmes".[103]

·  "Asymmetry in security and defence matters": the Commission argues that "in order to contribute towards objectives of the Commons Security and Defence Policy, the EU has to establish ever closer and stronger links and synergies between the civil and defence dimensions of space".[104] Once more, it argues that the membership "asymmetry" of ESA and the EU are therefore problematic in a space policy context.[105] In particular, Mr Gonzalez highlighted Copernicus and Galileo as programmes which have "a security dimension".[106]

·  "Absence of mechanisms for policy coordination": cooperation between ESA and the EU is currently organised through the 2004 EU/ESA Framework Agreement, rather than through more formal structures.[107] The Commission argues that because "there is no formal mechanism at policy level to ensure that initiatives taken within ESA are consistent with EU policies", "specific mechanisms for coordination and cooperation need to be agreed in time-consuming negotiations at programme level".[108] It believes such negotiations could be avoided with formal agreements to structure coordination.[109]

·  "Missing political accountability for ESA": the Commission argues that "the fact that ESA as a European agency has no formal link with the European Parliament deprives ESA of the direct link with citizens that any EU policy enjoys".[110] It therefore supposes that bringing ESA closer to the EU would make the Agency "directly" accountable to European citizens.[111]

32.  As a result of these issues, the Commission has concluded that:

The need for greater operational efficiency, symmetry in defence and security matters, political coordination and accountability can only be resolved, in the long term, through the rapprochement of ESA towards the European Union.[112]

Three possible forms for such a "rapprochement" have been put forward. These are: "improved cooperation under the status quo, bringing ESA as an intergovernmental organisation under the authority of the European Union [...] or transforming ESA into an EU agency".[113]

33.  We put these "obstacles" to Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General, European Space Agency. Whilst acknowledging that "in the current relationship, there is room for improvement", he described himself as "not keen for an institutional change".[114] Indeed, he did "not consider" the five issues raised by the Commission as obstacles, and explained that ESA's financial system had already been changed to be consistent with EU regulations.[115] He dismissed the Commission's difficulties with membership asymmetry, saying he would "not kick out Switzerland and Norway, because, frankly speaking, we need Switzerland and Norway".[116] He also dismissed the Commission's concerns about cooperation on defence and security matters.[117] ESA stated that the "optimum" resolution to the Commission's concerns "would be one which most effectively maintains the strengths of the ESA system while significantly improving the efficiency of its relationship with the EU".[118]

34.  We heard widespread scepticism regarding the Commission's proposals, which echoed the concerns of ESA's Director General. For example, UKspace stated that the EU should "avoid imposing modifications on the successful ESA model" as "ESA and the EU can work well together with distinct and complementary roles";[119] the National Oceanography Centre stated that the rapprochement "does not seem desirable, since it will undoubtedly disrupt ESA's ability to deliver";[120] Mullard Space Science Laboratory stated that it seemed "unlikely that oversight by the EU would in any way increase operational efficiency";[121] Professor David Southwood stated that the Commission's proposals "seem rather one size fits all";[122] and the UK Space Agency stated that "the strategic obstacles set out by the Commission are over-stated, though there are some issues that need to be addressed".[123] David Parker told us that:

    We have not seen the rationale for why there would be any benefits in transferring the European Space Agency lock, stock and barrel to the European Union. ESA has a very effective relationship with the science community; it works, so there is nothing particularly to be improved there. It has an effective working relationship with industry in developing commercial technology, so we don't see there is anything to be gained. Where the European Union can really make a contribution is at the high political and policy level of supporting relationships in space activities between Europe and, for example, free trade discussions, perhaps with the United States, and also investing in space infrastructure where they support European Union policies. Those are the directions in which we would like to see the European Union's involvement in space head off.[124]

35.  The Minister told us that he thought the Commission's concerns were "misplaced" and "they were trying to invent problems that were not there".[125] When questioned on the proposals, he stated:

    The Commission seems to suggest that transforming ESA into an EU agency might be necessary to make it easier to manage EU funds through delegations to ESA. We believe that instead we should focus on what is best for growth and science, rather than tidy-mindedness. ESA has served our space sector well as an independent intergovernmental organisation. In preliminary discussions in both the EU and ESA, several member states, notably the UK and Germany, have arrived at the view that there is no obvious case for ESA to become an agency of the EU. There are legitimate questions about how it can work better with the EU. It gets about a quarter of its funding from the EU and sometimes it acts as an agent for the EU, as it is commissioned to carry out work and deliver programmes such as Galileo. There are issues about different auditing and funding rules, which can be tidied up, but it is not obvious that the solution to such problems is to go as far as ESA becoming an EU agency.[126]

36.  We instead heard an alternative view for how the relationship between ESA and the EU should develop. Jean-Jacques Dordain set out explicitly what he hoped for from the EU as follows:

    I consider that the EU is the world of the European citizen, while ESA is the space world. I am not expecting, let me put it this way, the Commission to explain to me how we make a satellite. We know how to make a satellite. What I am expecting from the European Commission is for it to tell me which of the European policies can benefit from space infrastructure. There are a lot, starting with-I am French-the agricultural policy, but also the environment, security and development policies can all benefit from space infrastructure. I need the European Commission. I need a guide. I am not a specialist in agriculture or security. This is what I am expecting from the EU. Again, I am not expecting from it satellites-we know how to make satellites-but I am expecting from it to describe the demand of European policies that can benefit from space infrastructure.[127]

The Minister appeared to agree with this assessment, stating that "the EU can use ESA to deliver EU programmes and be a downstream customer, building up the use of ESA technology".[128]

37.  The Commission's proposals are scheduled for discussion at the next ESA ministerial council meeting, where the Minister will be involved in putting together ESA's strategy for how it should interact with the EU.[129] The EU will be an important player in the space sector over the coming years. However, its role is distinct from that of the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA has specific strengths made possible through its current structure and organisation. Rather than seeking to oversee ESA's work, the EU should focus on developing its role as a policymaker and customer for space services, leaving ESA to act as a technical or design authority. We recommend that the Government resists attempts by the European Commission to bring the European Space Agency under its control. We also recommend that Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser, raises the scientific rationale behind this recommendation with Professor Anne Glover, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission.

90 and Q 69 Q 73 This competence is shared with Member States (Q 131) Back

91 Back

92   Q 69 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

93   Q 73 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

94   Q 69 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

95   Q 73, Q 74 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

96   Establishing appropriate relations between the EU and the European Space Agency, COM (2012) 671,  Back

97   COM (2012) 671 p3 Back

98   COM (2012) 671 p3 Back

99   Ev 70, para 5.3 Back

100   COM (2012) 671 p3 Back

101   Ev 67, para 1.1 Back

102   COM (2012) 671 p3 Back

103   Q 78 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

104   COM (2012) 671 p3 Back

105   COM (2012) 671 p3 Back

106   Q 78 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

107   Ev 69, para 2.3 Back

108   COM (2012) 671 p4 Back

109   COM (2012) 671 p4 Back

110   COM (2012) 671 p4 Back

111   Q 78 [Augusto Gonzalez] Back

112   COM (2012) 671 p4 Back

113   COM (2012) 671 p4 Back

114   Q 102 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

115   Q 104 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

116   Q 105 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

117   Q 104 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

118   Ev 70, para 2.8 Back

119   Ev 57, para 0.5, para 2.2  Back

120   Ev w6, para 2.2 Back

121   Ev 52, para 2.1 Back

122   Ev 48, para 7 Back

123   Ev 81,para 34 Back

124   Q 134 [David Parker] Back

125   Q 173 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

126 Back

127   Q 102 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

128   Q 173 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

129   Q 19 [Professor Holdaway] Back

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Prepared 28 October 2013