A dispute over a major EU satellite project has highlighted several areas of British world-class technical competency.
Yesterday Brussels moved to shut out the UK from the Galileo, an EU project to develop a European satellite navigation system. EU officials argue that countries outside the bloc cannot have access to the system’s sensitive service.
The comments have sparked concern both in Britain and among EU member states. While there is some talk of certain countries (yes, France) putting national commercial self-interest ahead of the bloc’s common security, in fact there is broad support for the UK’s continued involvement.
According to the Financial Times, French and German intelligence chiefs have said they want information sharing to continue.
In addition, the European Space Agency has been unequivocal that it wants continued UK involvement.
Commenting on the risk of UK pull-back last year, Josef Aschbacher, director at the European Space Agency, urged the UK to commit to future projects, saying “We really rely on [the UK’s] expertise industrially and data usage. We would want to see very strong UK participation in future.”
Indeed the UK has so far accounted for 15% of Galileo’s workflow (having contributed 12% of the total €10bn funding), including being responsible for most of the project’s encryption and intelligence.
The British arm of Montreal-headquartered CGI Group developed Galileo's encryption technology, while Qinetiq, based in southern England, developed the receivers for Galileo’s Public Regulated Service, the area of contention among EU officials.
In addition, the descriptively-named Small Satellite Supplier, based in Surrey, makes the Galileo satellite’s navigation payloads (the intelligence and data).
If Brussels follows through on its threat and no deal is struck on security, such companies will be frozen out from further contracts. This could result in a lose-lose situation for EU security, as well as Britain, which has otherwised promised the EU “unconditional” security co-operation after Brexit.
The UK was never a big fan of the project, objecting at the outset in 2001 to the cost-to-value of developing a rival to the US military system. Now it has invested so much in the system against its better judgement, it faces losing the lot.
There is no question Britain has some world-class boffins. All that is required now is some world-class diplomacy.
Images courtesy of the European Space Agency