In 2008, with Europe headed into recession, the European Space Agency approved a €10 billion ($13 billion) multiyear space spending program, saying that an economic downturn was no time to cut investment in research and technology development that could stimulate much-needed growth.

Four years later, with Europe further mired in financial turmoil, these same governments are meeting to decide a fresh set of spending for the agency's programs and operations in the coming years. But with many big contributors facing severe spending cuts at home, it is far from clear whether member states will have the same appetite for R&D investment. Some officials are suggesting the science program—the largest spending line at around €2.6 billion over five years—will not even be able to keep up with inflation.

“Flat cash would be in line with what our national budgets have received for science,” says David Williams, the head of the U.K. Space Agency and president of the European Space Agency (ESA) ruling council, the ministers of which will meet for two days in Naples this week to hash out the multiyear spending plan. Two of ESA's four largest contributors, France and Italy, have remained mum as to what their total investment will be. Germany, ESA's largest financial backer, has signaled a small increase over its 2008 level of nearly €2.7 billion.

In a surprise move, however, the British chancellor of the exchequer on Nov. 9 committed his nation to a 25% increase in ESA spending in 2013-17.

In terms of total contribution, the unprecedented funding boost still leaves the U.K. far below France, Germany and Italy, which are grappling with big-ticket items, such as paying for a next-generation launcher and continuing support for the International Space Station (ISS). Britain has no commitment to either of those, and so it could use the increase to nab larger pieces of small and mid-sized programs, including development of a new telecom satellite platform and the Metop Second-Generation meteorological satellite (EPS-SG).

Science is only one of a half-dozen spending lines up for debate. ESA ministers will haggle over Earth observation, telecommunications, navigation, exploration, launch vehicles and support for the ISS, the latter two being among the most contentious issues to resolve.

For the first time in 25 years, Europe is being asked to consider starting a new, multibillion-euro rocket development, one that may not provide the same kind of industrial participation as the current Ariane 5 ECA vehicle.

The German government, backed by German and French industry, says designs for a successor, known as Ariane 6, are not yet clear enough to permit an immediate start to a program that could cost roughly €4 billion over 10 years. They are in favor of completing the mid-life evolution (Ariane 5 ME) agreed to in 2008, an upgrade that would increase the Ariane 5's payload carrying power by 20% to more than 11,000 kg (24,250 lb.).

Nonetheless, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain has said Europe cannot lose any more time on Ariane 6, given competition in the global commercial market and the need to end ESA's €120 million in annual price supports for Ariane 5.

France's higher education and research minister, Genevieve Fioraso, has proposed maximizing synergies between Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 to preserve past investments. During a late-October visit to industrial-gas giant Air Liquide in Sassenage, France, she said the rocket's development would sustain Europe's expertise in launchers while resulting in a less costly vehicle that takes account of long-term market conditions and prospects for intense competition. “There is no use delaying the decision,” says Fioraso, who will lead the French delegation at the ESA ministerial meeting.

France and Germany must also reach consensus on continued European participation in the ISS beyond 2015, and how to pay for it. ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is the largest cargo carrier currently serving the station, but only five such vehicles are expected to cover ESA's share of common operating costs aboard the orbiting outpost through 2017. Beyond that, NASA has asked Europe to provide a propulsion module based on the ATV for its Orion crew exploration vehicle, a plan Germany supports. But Italy and France would like Europe to find something more technologically challenging to cover ESA's share of roughly €450 million in ISS common operating costs in 2017-20.

Meanwhile, French space agency CNES says Europe is lacking several hundred million euros to fund its own use of the station, an issue that should be resolved before ESA debates a so-called ISS “barter element” with NASA.

Russian space agency Roscosmos is expected to make an appearance at the ministerial meeting to formalize participation in ExoMars, Europe's only ongoing space exploration program. ESA governments have spent several hundred million euros on the program to date, but its costs have grown and a previous bilateral partnership between ESA and NASA collapsed in 2011, leaving Russia to step in as a partner.

Lunar exploration is also on the agenda (see article below), including development of a robotic lander and small terrestrial rover backed by Germany, which in today's economic environment is capable of making or breaking the ministerial summit.

The weight of the issues facing ESA governments now and the financial stresses on them have forced Dordain to effectively divide the meeting into two, though these summits occur usually just every three or four years. To avoid collapse of ESA, he proposes that only some issues be resolved definitively this year, leaving the rest to another ministerial conference scheduled for mid-2014.

Despite the challenging economic environment, Dordain says telecom projects are expected to see a slight increase, to €1.2-1.4 billion, with a portion of the U.K.'s spending increase targeted at development of a new telecom satellite platform dubbed NeoSat.

In addition, ESA wants to invest in an all-electric satellite known as Electra to counter international developments, notably by Boeing, which has already sold two such spacecraft commercially. The agency also wants to upgrade the Vega rocket, invest in a maritime surveillance system and expand its data relay service, all items likely to be delayed until 2014.

One agenda item ESA cannot postpone, however, is funding for the EPS-SG second-generation, polar-orbiting, meteorological satellite system. In 2008, one of the biggest controversies was the geo-industrial battle that ensued as France and Germany disputed who was to take the lead in developing Europe's Meteosat Third Generation (MTG-3) weather satellite system, a bidding war ESA ministers will be keen to avoid with EPS-SG, especially with potential U.K. interest in the program.

EPS-SG will be lumped into a €2.5 billion spending line that includes ESA's Earth-observation programs and elements of the European Union's Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program.

By 2014, Dordain says, the 27-nation EU will have determined its own multiyear budget for 2014-20, which will be the subject of a European summit just after the Naples meeting. The EU is struggling to resolve issues for many of the same reasons as ESA, including how to fund its commitment of €5.8 billion for GMES operations starting in 2014.

“I am told that the most difficult years for the member states are 2013 and 2014,” Dordain says. “It is always the next two years that are the most difficult.”