Galileo, Galileo: London is Losing the Fight Over a Satellite Navigation System All Over Again

Campaigners in favor of Brexit made a famous claim in 2016 that leaving the European Union (EU) would allow the United Kingdom to pour its £350-million-a-week contribution to Brussels back into the nation’s National Health Service. Now the “remainers” have their own numbers to throw around: £3 billion may be necessary to keep the United Kingdom’s access to vital technology in space. The UK government confirmed on August 29 that it is exploring the possibility of creating its own satellite navigation system—which experts say could potentially cost several billion pounds—due to growing concerns that it will be locked out of the EU’s existing system, known as Galileo, once the United Kingdom leaves the bloc next year.

Westminster’s concern stems from opposition in Brussels to allowing the United Kingdom to continue its participation in Galileo’s Public Regulated Service (PRS), which provides a separate satellite navigation service with higher security for government and military use. EU officials have said that without EU membership, it would be improper for the United Kingdom to have access to this system or for its businesses to participate in its construction and maintenance. A recent British government study warned that being locked out from Galileo could cost the country as much as £1 billion a day in economic activity, prompting the discussion of replacing the EU’s system with a fully-domestic one.

All of this consternation is over a project that London never really wanted. The story of Galileo’s development provides ample evidence of the Brussels overreach Brexit proponents have decried for years, but also shows the severe cost leaving the bloc will have for the British economy and society.

Adding insult to injury, it is even unclear if the United Kingdom will be reimbursed for a £1.3 billion system whose structure and governance it opposed and now may no longer have any access to at all.

Much of London’s hesitation over Galileo during its development in the 1990s and 2000s was, ironically, over the same PRS that may prevent the United Kingdom’s future participation in the system. PRS was first mentioned in a November 2000 European Commission report outlining the potential costs and services for the new Galileo system. To many EU states at the time, including the United Kingdom, the creation of a service that naturally could be used for military purposes (like the United States’ military-designed GPS system) managed by Brussels and using EU funds was a bridge too far. The idea that a system used by the British military for sensitive operations could be under the control of bureaucrats in Brussels was unacceptable to many in Westminster.

Member state governments were able to pump the brakes by issuing a resolution in April 2001 defining Galileo as a “civilian program under civilian control,” with no emphasis on military use. Adding weight was US Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who sent a scathing letter to Brussels in December 2001 over his concerns that a Galileo PRS system would use the same radio spectrum as the US GPS military service, preventing the United States from being able to shut down access to the spectrum in times of crisis.

Wolfowitz’s intervention backfired. His suggestion that if European governments relied on GPS for government purposes they could be unilaterally shut off by the Americans without warning stoked the interest of French and other EU member states in PRS. France and other EU member states worked hard to lobby Germany, Denmark, and others to abandon their initial opposition to the PRS.

The United Kingdom still had serious concerns about who would control a PRS and its potential conflicts with GPS, but also knew that it would be unable to singlehandedly block the Galileo system over the issue, as voting would be conducted under the qualified majority vote (QMV) rules of the Council of the European Union, one of the EU’s main decision-making bodies. Normally, decisions on security and defense in the EU can only be made with unanimous consent of the member states, but Galileo had been labeled as an economic and transportation issue by the European Commission as early as the 1990s, with agreement from the British who believed the program would be limited to such activities. Despite the introduction of high-level security issues such as PRS, Galileo would remain subject to the EU’s economic rules. The United Kingdom had been outfoxed.

The United Kingdom still clung to hope that Galileo activities would remain wholly civilian or that a future decision to open a PRS for serious security uses would be subject to unanimous consent, as funding was finally approved in March 2002. Yet that same day a Commission statement celebrated that Galileo “will also give the European Union a military capability.” In 2006, Commission officials casually remarked that potential military use of the PRS was up to each individual member state to decide for themselves. Four years later, a Commission survey found that only the British and German militaries were not planning on using PRS. In the same report, the Commission used a 2008 European Court of Justice decision on small arms to explicitly argue that Galileo’s position in the Commission’s economic portfolio required that all votes on Galileo, including on potential military and security issues of PRS, would operate under QMV rules, making a British veto impossible. Fast-forward to today, and the British could soon be locked out of reaping the benefits of PRS, a service they paid for, but never wanted in the first place.

The fight over Galileo has justifiably invoked considerable frustration from many in London over Brexit, as it shows not only the reasons why London always was uncomfortable in Brussels, but also the very real losses Brexit will bring. During the development of Galileo, the European Commission and other EU member states would conveniently label Galileo as “civilian” to ensure British support and funding, only to backtrack on those claims once the project was too far along to scuttle, a scenario that many Eurosceptics would argue has played out throughout the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU. The fact that Westminster must now abandon the Galileo system with no ability to recoup its investment is a bitter pill to swallow.

At the same time, Westminster’s solution to the problem—to build its own satellite navigation system— shows the severe consequences of Brexit. British taxpayers have already paid billions of pounds for Galileo and now may pay many billions more to create a whole new system from scratch unless an unlikely compromise with Brussels can be secured. British participation in the EU has always meant taking some integrative steps that made Westminster quite uncomfortable, in return for the benefits of combining resources and markets for the British economy and consumers. Many Brexit campaigners had hoped that they could now achieve the former without sacrificing the latter. As the recent fight over space shows, however, that looks less and less likely to be achieved.

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Image: The Russian Soyuz VS01 rocket, carrying the first two satellites of Europe's Galileo navigation system, blasts off from its launchpad at the Guiana Space Center in Sinnamary, French Guiana, October 21, 2011. (REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)