The UK’s decision to part ways with the European Union has reached a new frontier: space. According to reports from The Financial Times, the EU is trying to exclude the UK from its €10 billion Galileo project; an ongoing plan to launch 30 satellites that will provide an alternative to the US-controlled global positioning system (GPS).
According to the FT, British companies are likely to be excluded from building components for Galileo satellites, and the UK military may be barred from using the encrypted positioning data these spacecraft will provide. As the paper notes, the creation of a GPS alternative is of “significant strategic and commercial importance” to the UK, and plans outlined by the European Commission (the legislative branch of the EU) would damage not only Britain’s aerospace industry, but its national security as well.
The Commission is arguing that because the UK has yet to finalize a security agreement with the EU it cannot be involved with the Galileo project. Doing so would “irretrievably compromise” the system’s highly sensitive data, says the Commission, which is intended for the use of EU member states only. Like GPS, Galileo satellites will produce navigation and mapping data for millions of devices, including consumer products and military craft.
The UK’s defense secretary, Gavin Williamson, reportedly “hit the roof” when he found out about the Commission’s plans, with a senior UK figure describing them as “outrageous.” From a national security perspective, having access to an alternative to GPS is advantageous, especially as the Trump administration’s actions have weakened confidence in America’s defense guarantee in Europe.
From a commercial perspective the news is equally grim, with the lock-out likely to scupper UK ambitions to generate £40 billion in annual sales from the aerospace industry by 2030. Galileo contracts are estimated to have provided £1 billion ($1.4 billion) in revenue to British firms to date, and some in the UK space industry claim the Commission’s plans are intended to redistribute these contracts to French rivals.
“I suspect they are just saying to themselves that there is a short term opportunity to grab work share,” one industry executive told the FT. “Eventually we will sort it all out and have good security co-operation with the UK but only in six months’ time after we have grabbed the work.”
The UK government is reportedly scrambling to find ways to stay involved in Galileo. “The government has been clear that we want our critical role in this important project, which will help strengthen European security, to continue as we develop our deep and special partnership with the EU,” a spokesperson for business secretary Greg Clark told The Register.