Brexit from space
A new twist to the Brexit story ?
In an opinion for the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg, Advocate General Campos Sanchez-Bordona concluded that the United Kingdom could unilaterally stop the Brexit process invoked under Article 50. The provision indeed ”allows the unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU », as reported in this press release.
The UK Parliament still has to give its final approval to the final deal drafted by the government. Many fear it will actually reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit proposal. The case originated from Scotland, a ruling reference made by the Court of Session in Edinburgh to Strasbourg.
This announcement falls like a potential blow for UK Prime Minister Theresa May, on the very same day she will try to gather support from the House of Commons. The deal has been agreed with European leaders but met with growing opposition, even among members of the conservatives.
According to Theresa May, the deal brings “an end to free movement once and for all. An end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK. An end to those vast sums we send to Brussels every year. And a fair settlement of our financial obligations, less than half what some predicted” (prepared remarks shared ahead of her speech, as quoted by CNN)
Notably, there is no mention of the prime issue of Northern Ireland and the Irish border Brexit backstop aiming at maintaining an open border on the island. The Good Friday Peace agreement must be maintained, but the UK and the European Union still do not agree on the fate of the customs and regulatory border (see this explanation from John Campbell for BBC).
According to the Prime Minister, her deal « delivers » what is required by the Brexit Referendum, including “a new Free Trade Area with no tariffs, fees, quantitative restrictions or rules of origin checks — an unprecedented economic relationship that no other major economy has ».
However, what does it mean for space activities in the UK ?
To put things in context, Britain’s Science Minister Sam Gyimah resigned last week, following the announcement made by Theresa May that the UK would not be involved in the EU’s Galileo project post-Brexit :
“The commission decided that we would be barred from having full aspects of the Galileo programme and so it is right for us to look for alternatives.”
The Kingdom had made clear it didn’t want to leave the Galileo project, which is aiming at developing a global navigation satellite system, and no longer solely depend on the United States (along with the Chinese and Russian) GPS coverage. However, for the a finalized Brexit would imply that the UK can no longer access the encrypted features for Member States national security and governmental use.
In july of this year, Lord Whitty, Chairman of the European Union Internal Market Sub-Committee, already warned the stakeholders: excluding « UK companies from the latest procurement batch » of Galileo would have « rather damaging effects, in particular for Surrey Satellite Technology and the other Airbus subsidiaries involved ».
For the resigning Science Minister, Galileo should have remained « a core part of a future EU-UK security partnership ». It involved « full access to the secure signal, and […] UK industry involvement in the secure elements and the ability to participate in all areas of the programme ».
« As the Committee is no doubt aware, the UK has been deeply involved in Galileo pretty much from its inception, so we are not in the same place as other third countries, which is what the current proposal implies. We have also said a number of times that, given the deep level of expertise here, excluding the UK from the success of the programme would make the programme more costly for the EU and lead to delays”.
Sam Gyimah also mentioned a domestic alternative to Galileo and new satellite launch programme, which both wouldn’t prove sufficient for GPS coverage. Following the decision of the European Space Agency, the UK would not be able to rely any longer on the system for their national security interests. The country has been a major contributor to the funding (14%) and the development and operation of Galileo (17%), and sees it now as a high-strategic investment.
ESA and the EU’s position is explained by the fact that the UK will no longer enjoy a Member States status, but rather become a third-party with regard to the EU. This strictly conditions its access to and operation of the Galileo system regarding restricted elements used in the military or for national security and sovereign matters. Third-party agreements should then be negociated, like for Norway and Switzerland.
What about the other programs ?
According to the Director of the European Space Policy Institute Jean-Jacques Tortora:
« the UK’s participation in the Copernicus program might [also] be at risk. However,because Copernicus is acollaborative programme, it will likely be in the interest of all parties for the UK to continue active participation. Copernicus is based ona free data policy, ensuring the availability of most data to the UK, although some data might be restricted to contributing parties and there might be some potential issues for high bandwidth access to the data .»
More than anything, what is at stake here is competitiveness of a whole country, which is a major point regarding the global scale of the space economy, its ramifications between institutional and private actors and its emerging market :
« the [UK space] sector is small in economic terms, but more is at stake than pure economy. Even though Brexit will not affect UK’s participation in the ESA, it is unclear if this will be sufficient to maintain the UK industry’s critical mass. Without their critical mass, the UK will no longer be competitive in the space sector ».
It remains to be seen now ow these problems will be addressed in such a changing context as Brexit.
Brexit will change UK role in Europe’s space programmes, ESA says — Euractiv.com with AFP, 15 sept. 2016