Questions have been asked about the UK’s future membership of the European Space Agency in the event that the British government negotiates a separation from the European Union. Also, what happens to the UK space industry which is strongly connected to European projects?

The short answer is that the European Space Agency is not controlled by the European Union and is not a part of its regulatory or political structure. ESA emerged from essentially two separate groups: the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO). It was established on 30 May 1975.

Now ESA has 22 member states and sets a mandatory funding base with a range of optional programmes in which individual members can subscribe. In broader terms, countries receive in work packages a percentage approximately equal to their annual contributions. In extremely simplistic terms – pay 10% of the ESA budget, get 10% of ESA work back out. In this way it subscribes to a fundamental principle of economics in that load-spread invokes lower per capita costs. In addition, member states get to participate in projects they would not be able to afford themselves.

With a net contribution of 9.9%, the UK is the fourth largest ESA funding state, exceeded by Italy (10.6%), France (22.2%) and Germany (24.6%). But those funding levels incorporate projects in which the UK plays little or no part, with France and Italy heavily loaded by launcher development and Germany by human space flight activity. At present the UK captures 7% of the global space industry and delivers more than £9 billion to the British economy.

Institutionally, the UK joined the EU on 1 January 1973 but in a later referendum called by the Labour Party held in June 1975, 67% of British people (who voted) elected to remain in the EU. In a second referendum held in Britain on 23 June 2016, 51.9% (of those who voted) decided to leave the EU. This is not a mandatory requirement to be enacted by the British government but rather a recommendation of preference. However, in the unlikely event that a government would elect to go against the democratic will of the British people and that a negotiated separation takes place, how is British industry positioned?

Membership of ESA is not linked to membership of the EU and there is no reason to believe that there is any threat to existing or future UK participation. However, an increasing amount of work carried out by ESA, as well as by industry, is for the European Union. But the EU is a customer and as such has no legislative or executive power over ESA. The Galileo navigation satellite programme is a case in point, as increasingly is the Copernicus Earth observation programme.

Broadly, ESA programmes account for 320,000 jobs in the EU (including 95,000 in the UK) and between 2014 and 2020 some €12 billion will be spent on these two programmes in addition to space research as part of the Horizon 2020 project. Increasingly, the EU is managing pan-European space applications projects but has no authority to operate other than as a customer/user. However, in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, EU countries voted for the EU to have a stronger role in organising and managing European space affairs. The Council of the European Union adopted a policy plan in December 2014 which specifically ties the future of European space programmes to the political integration of European countries. And a consultation process is just ending for a major transition involving the EU and ESA.

The EU seeks to establish a space policy of its own because it sees space applications as one of the fundamental advantages for pan-European support of jobs, industrial growth and the management of the environment, as well as securing the space-faring interests of companies and organisations in EU member states. At present it seeks to provide custom for ESA for those reasons. While assertions have been made by some individuals that the EU seeks to “take over” ESA, executive heads at ESA have expressed their opinion that such a move is unnecessary. Nevertheless, increasingly, ESA work (in space applications) is tied to EU-wide programmes (such as Galileo and Copernicus).

So where does that leave the UK space industry if Britain leaves the EU?

Government controls aside, objectively the management of UK space interests related to manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft, satellites, systems and subsystems should not be affected at all but in reality the British space industry is strongly tied in to pan-European consortia. It is highly likely that the roadmap of UK participation will be influenced by a separation, although the magnitude of that effect would be contingent on the terms of the negotiated settlement as it relates to the movement of manufactured goods.

In reality, the situation will change because the economic profile of the UK will be different and that will influence the decision – probably made in Europe – about the amount of work shared out to consortia facilities in respective countries. For instance, decisions at Airbus Defence & Space as to which facility (country) receives offers for bids and which facility receives work packages could be influenced by the UK’s exit from the EU.

The unpredictable aspect is that increasingly the space industry in Europe is dependent on political decisions at a pan-European, rather than a national, level and the “will” of the consensus in EU countries could override clinical decisions based on pragmatic judgements on capabilities and equitable work-sharing.

Extrapolating forward from recent trends, the increasing interest played by the EU in space policy could surround space contracting and limit non-EU participation. In a document issued in 2011, the EU stated its key objectives, promoting technological progress, faster innovation, citizen-benefits, and a stronger European role in international space activities. The part played by EU commissioners in opening discussions with China is part of an integration which could place the UK in a less competitive position but those are uncertainties which are, at present, pure speculation.

Within the UK itself, should the government at the time decide to leave the EU there may be a greater challenge to the indigenous space industry from a change in policy here in Britain. Readjustment of economic factors in the domestic financial situation and newly placed priorities at government level could change the degree of support and the amount of money available to national and international projects and programmes. All lead contenders for government leadership by each of the principle political parties have gone on record to state their support for a robust and growing aerospace sector, since this is, unquestionably, one of the strongest growing sectors in UK investment and revenue.

David Baker
Editor, Spaceflight

Be sociable; support the BIS!