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Space Policy

1. New on the EU agenda: European space policy

Society relies on the constant functioning of a range of space-based applications: satellites which deliver live news and sports broadcasts from across the world, navigation systems determining positions and travel routes and Earth observation satellites supporting the formulation of fairly reliable weather forecasts. Space applications support a wide range of services and initiatives to understand and overcome global problems, like environmental policy and climate change.

The space beyond the atmosphere of our planet has always been a fascinating subject for humankind: the sun is key driver for all life on Earth, stars from far away send their blinking light through the night skies and galaxies still farther away trigger thoughts about the unknown. The race to enter space between Russia and America started some fifty years ago with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1 in 1957, and the first flight of men to the moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Both events demonstrated what huge efforts and the best of technologies could achieve.

In 1975 a few European states established their own space agency, the European Space Agency (ESA), to combine national space research activities at a European level. With the development of several generations of Ariane launchers they were aiming to guarantee Europe’s independent access to space. ESA is an intergovernmental organisation with no formal organic link to the EU. The two institutions have different Member States and are governed by different rules and procedures.

When the European Communities were founded in 1957, the challenges of those post-war days were lack of food and energy, reconstruction and peaceful cooperation. Thus the first treaties did not include an explicit responsibility for space policy. This did not change until the Heads of State or Government at the Nice European Council of December 2000 agreed to the Treaty of Nice and at the same time to a consequent Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on the future of Europe. The IGC in 2004 proposed to add space policy to the responsibilities or “competencies” of the EU. Although the draft European Constitution did not find full approval from EU citizens in the ratification process, the latest reform treaty, the Treaty of Lisbon, now includes space policy along research and technological development.

The common basis for today’s European space policy relies on a framework agreement between the EU and the ESA, which entered into force in 2004 and established a Space Council, a regular joint EU and ESA meeting at level of responsible Ministers and EU Commissioners. In 2007, the cooperation led to the adoption of the European Space Policy which underpins the strategic importance of space systems and space applications for Europe. It is a joint policy document of the European Commission (the executive arm of the EU) and the European Space Agency. The Space Council in May 2007 adopted this policy outline with strong political support.

“We are extremely pleased at the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to this new European Space Policy,” Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen said then. “We have reaffirmed Europe’s position as a global space power. Europe possesses some splendid technological and scientific capacities as measured against anyone in the world.”

The European Space Policy orients the coordination of civil space programmes in Europe, exploiting synergies between civilian and military space programmes, supporting European space applications like satellite navigation (Galileo), Earth observation (GMES) and satellite communications, maintaining a competitive European space industry and supporting the scientific and technological base of space research programmes. “Taken together, EU and ESA Member States include 29 countries, now all are unified and committed to a common comprehensive policy,” ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain said at the 2007 Space Summit. With the official endorsement of the Space Council, the European Space Policy has, for the first time, the explicit support of all EU and ESA Member States, giving Europe a clear political mandate to act in the global arena.

The new European Space Policy makes specific reference to defence and security applications, aiming to increase synergies between military and civil space programmes and, in particular, supporting the interoperability of these systems to ensure investments are maximised (i.e., double development costs in the civil and military sector avoided). Europe, it confirms, will also continue to seek autonomous access to space. Today, Europe remains at least partly dependant on the United States and Russia for non-human payloads and completely dependant when it comes to human space missions. Nevertheless, relations with non-European partners are a key priority, including new players such as India and China. The new space policy provides for a specific coordination mechanism for such international cooperation and Europe’s participation at the International Space Station (ISS).

Specifically, the strategy confirms continued support for further development and exploitation of European flagship space initiatives such as a European global positioning system (Galileo), the Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES) and satellite communication applications. Support for technological and scientific advancement will focus on identified critical technology domains and mainly supported through the EU Research Framework Programmes.

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