LONDON and NAPLES, Italy — The European Union is taking an aggressive stance with the European Space Agency, reiterating shared authority over European space under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty and handing it a to-do list of changes aimed at bringing ESA more in line with the EU.
“The commission considers that a clear target date should be set between 2020 and 2025 for this long-term objective,” the European Commission asserts in a communique sent shortly before the recent ESA budget meeting in Naples, Italy. The communique outlines options ranging from better coordination under the status quo to making ESA an EU agency.
Chief among the commission’s worries is that non-EU members — Norway, Switzerland and Canada (the latter serving as an associate member through a multilateral accord) — could have disproportionate leverage over the EU’s activities in military space. “This poses an obvious problem in general and an even more acute problem when it comes to security and defense matters,” the commission says in the Nov. 14 document, which urges ESA to incorporate management structures geared solely toward EU programs that would enable Switzerland and Norway to take part, subject to EU agreement.
The EU has always had an uneasy relationship with the European Space Agency. A club of mostly EU-member states, ESA’s 20 nations fund billions in a la carte development programs outside EU control, where the agency is free to uphold national industry workshare demands over competitive pricing, set policy and negotiate accords with other space powers, albeit without the international clout Brussels could bring to the table.
The policy proposal also takes aim at ESA’s “missing political accountability,” although, despite having no formal relationship with the European Parliament, ESA has for years set space policy in key areas where the EU has not played a role.
“The discussion and the debate on the future of European access to space is a good example of that,” says Gerard Brachet, a space policy consultant with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and a former director-general of French space agency CNES, referring to an ongoing battle between France and Germany over Europe’s future launch vehicle.
ESA’s two largest financial backers had been haggling over whether to continue an upgrade of Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket, known as the Ariane 5 ME, or embark on a more affordable successor, the Ariane 6. The budget meeting only partially resolved the debate, which is expected to resume in 2014 when the agency meets again at the ministerial level. But the two sides agreed to continue the Ariane 5 ME while conducting detailed design work on the Ariane 6 and identifying potential synergies between the two that could lead to a leaner, less costly launch vehicle development by the early 2020s.
“That was a decision that did not take place in Brussels. It took place in the ESA Council,” Brachet says.
Sensitive to the commission’s concerns, ESA is making changes. For the first time, it has appointed two chairmen who will lead its ruling council for the next three years: Mauro Dell’Ambrogio, Swiss state secretary for education and research; and Francois Biltgen, Luxembourg minister of higher education and research, who will deal with the EU where Dell’Ambrogio cannot.
ESA also adopted a resolution at the November ministerial meeting that initiates a dialogue to define how it can adapt to the EU’s growing interest in space.
“There’s a recognition, post-Lisbon Treaty, that we have to work out a new modus vivendi,” says Britain’s science minister, David Willetts, who led the U.K. delegation at the council ministerial. “But it’s strong evidence that ESA isn’t broke, and it would be a pity to dismantle ESA or end up with an EU structure that parallels what ESA does.”