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The Union’s Space Programme: the future of Europe in Space?

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On 6 June 2018, following the interests of the European Union in space and considering the legal basis set forth in Article 189 (2) of the TFEU, the Commission presented a proposal for Regulation establishing the Space Programme of the European Union, as well as the European Union Agency for the Space Programme. This Regulation will harmonize rules from separate Regulations and Decisions by combining them in a single text while repealing some of them at the same time.

The need for the Commission to propose such Regulation is understandable, it will better implement the European Space Strategy and achieve its goals as well as expand the role of the European Union on the space field. It will also raise the Union’s space budget, expand the tasks of the European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (due to which it will be renamed as European Union Agency for the Space Programme), create a system of governance between the actors involved and implement a new component called Governmental Satellite Communication (GOVSATCOM). However, this regulation might raise some challenges, specifically when it comes to the governance of the Programme. That is, of course, not the only question up to debate since the 16 billion euros budget for the 2021-2027 period (Article 11) will also raise some discussions, especially if we take into account that 19 of the EU’s 27 Member States (the United Kingdom was not considered a Member for this Regulation already) are also Member States of the European Space Agency (Slovenia is a non-full Member State of ESA) which had a 5.6 billion euros budget for 2018.

When it comes to the governance of the Programme, the entities involved are mostly the Commission, the Member States of the EU, the (future) European Union Agency for the Space Programme (the Agency) and the European Space Agency (ESA). Other entities might be involved but mostly regarding the Copernicus component (Article 32).

The new Agency will be in charge of security accreditation, communication and promotion activities and provide expertise to the Commission. It might also be entrusted with the coordination of GOVSATCOM (Article 30). The Commission will have the overall responsibility for the implementation of the Programme, manage some components, and coordinate activities between entities and with activities carried out within the Union, national or international level (Article 29). Member States will be left to contribute to the Programme and cooperate with the Commission as well as perform some specific tasks entrusted by the Commission and security tasks referred in Article 34 (4) (Article 28).

The key issue will be the role of the European Space Agency within the Programme. The fact that both the EU and ESA have common interests in the European space field justifies the need for a development in cooperation between the two but it might also lead to some conflicting opinions in how to proceed. ESA will be entrusted with tasks regarding the Copernicus infrastructure, Galileo and EGNOS, as well as R&D activities in all of the components [Article 31 (1)]. A framework partnership agreement with ESA will be concluded. Such agreement will: define ESA’s responsibilities and obligations; require ESA to comply with the Union’s security rules; stipulate conditions of management of funds, communication strategy and rules regarding ownership of all assets; require participation of the Commission in ESA’s Tender Evaluation Board meetings; establish monitoring and control measures (which will include penalties against ESA for failing to comply with budgetary provisions) and establish principles for ESA’s remunerations [Article 31 (2)]. Such agreement will be contingent upon the establishment within ESA of measures that will protect the Union’s interests and comply with its decisions (even for activities funded by ESA) – Article 31 (3).

This approach might seem reasonable on the side of the European Union, however, it might not be well met on the side of the European Space Agency, as it seems somewhat that the EU is trying to expand its role to a point where it will have more power and influence within ESA which leads to the notion that the EU wants ESA to work as its own space agency.

Another concern that might be raised is regarding the need for a new EU Agency. Is it really needed? The Union either wants ESA to work as its standard space agency or wants to create a competing space agency, however, if we look at the role played by the new EU Agency it does not look like a standard space agency, as the Commission will be the one responsible for implementing the Programme. It would certainly make much more sense if this EU Agency would be in charge of running the Programme instead of the Commission (but that would seem much more like creating a competing Agency).

This Regulation is yet to be approved which means that it is still difficult to predict what will be the realistic scenario for the future and even after its approval, it would only be implemented on 2021, which means that we are still far behind of seeing its results. It is important, however, that these concerns are taken into account while its approval has not yet occurred, to understand better what will be the future of Europe in Space.

João Marques de Azevedo, NOVA University of Lisbon, School of Law

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