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‘Star wars’ risk to EU’s space plan, says agency chief – POLITICO


NEWPORT, Wales — The head of the European Space Agency slammed EU plans to create a branch devoted to the space and defense industries within the European Commission, saying the bloc should avoid contributing to global “star wars.”

Earlier this month, the incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set out plans to create a directorate general dedicated to “improving the crucial link between defense and space,” saying the plans would benefit the NATO alliance to which many EU states belong. The new administration will be overseen by the proposed commissioner for internal market, Sylvie Goulard.

Von der Leyen also said the directorate general would be responsible for implementing the EU’s future Space Program, covering the bloc’s global and regional satellite navigation systems Galileo and EGNOS and the Earth observation satellite constellation Copernicus.

The creation of the directorate general comes at a time of increased interest in space defense capabilities, with the U.S., India and China developing space weapons to attack and defend satellites.

In an interview with POLITICO, ESA Director General Jan Wörner criticized the plans, saying the Commission should resist the temptation to militarize space.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the British space industry will be unable to bid for contracts from the Commission to build Galileo satellites.

“I personally hope there are no star wars. That should not be our goal,” he said, adding that the space agency was created for “exclusively peaceful purposes” and it will stay as such for as long as he is at the helm.

“To keep space peaceful is for me a very important message,” he added.

At a roundtable session on Tuesday, Wörner advised against fostering a defense race in space. “What I am concerned about is that you can see some nationalism also in space, looking to use space also as a new place of defense and war and all of this.”

He was interrupted by a round of applause from the audience.

A spokesperson for von der Leyen said: "We don't comment on public speculation."

At previous ministerial conferences, ESA member states prioritized programs that yield quick, high returns to their national industries, such as navigation and Earth observation satellite systems.

Wörner took the reins at ESA in 2015 with a four-year term. But in 2018 the agency’s 22 member states extended his term for two additional years.

The extension means he will oversee ESA’s ministerial meeting in Seville in late November, where ministers will set Europe’s space agenda by committing €10.3 billion in public money to new and existing programs.

Wörner said he would not campaign for a second extension to his term and will step down unless ESA member states agree he should stay. He pointed to differences of opinion regarding who should steer the agency in the coming years.

“I will not proactively ask for that. Last time I had to campaign for myself and it was a very ugly situation. I was treated in a very ugly manner by some people. At the time I said I would never do this again. I’m old enough, I’m 65. Maybe a young woman would be a much better director general than me.”

But what about if ministers agree he should stay? “That’s a totally different story,” he replied. “But I will not run around asking: ‘Are you supporting me?’ If member states come and say, ‘We want you to continue,’ I might consider it, but I won’t proactively ask for it.”

Brexit woes

For the last three years, Wörner has publicly lamented the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, while insisting that Brexit will not change Britain’s position in ESA.

Although the agency is independent of the EU, it carries out a large amount of work for the European Commission, especially through the Galileo and Copernicus programs.

In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the British space industry will be unable to bid for contracts from the Commission to build Galileo satellites, and could potentially be excluded from the EU's GovSatCom program too.

The latter aims to provide a middle tier of communication services between commercial and military satellites and is being developed by ESA and the European Defence Agency’s 15 member states — including Britain — plus Norway.

Director of the European Space Agency (ESA) Jan Wörner | Clemens Bilan/EFE via EPA

In the interview, held during the UK Space annual conference taking place in Newport earlier this week, Wörner said he still hopes the U.K. and the EU will reach an agreement that allows British industry to participate in EU space programs.

“There are examples, like Israel, Switzerland, Norway. One cannot say this is not possible,” he said. “Maybe the divorce has to take place first, with all the dirty things like in life, and the day after one can start from scratch.”

Earlier in the day, U.K. Science Minister Chris Skidmore said he would be making “strong personal representations that as a nation we will need to increase our ESA contribution to strengthen our collaborations” at the coming ministerial conference.

Wörner said this could benefit the U.K., especially if the country emerges as the largest contributor in one or several ESA programs, since that would grant Britain some special rights over their development. But Wörner warned the U.K. against thinking it can buy influence over the agency’s future plans. “In ESA, the rule is one country, one vote,” he said.

The Ariane 5 rocket, with four Galileo satellites onboard, takes off from the launchpad in the European Space Center (Europe spaceport) on July 25, 2018 in Kourou, French Guiana | AFP via Getty Images

The director general wants member countries to contribute more to the emerging field of space safety and security — for example, programs aimed at removing space debris, deflecting asteroids and putting in place a pre-warning system for severe space weather events. Of ESA’s four pillars, this is the one that receives the smallest fraction (7 percent) of the agency’s budget.

At previous ministerial conferences, however, ESA member states prioritized programs that yield quick, high returns to their national industries, such as navigation and Earth observation satellite systems. In contrast, the Asteroid Impact Mission (AIM), which sought to evaluate the technical possibilities of changing the flight path of a small asteroid, failed to get the financial support it needed at the last ESA ministerial conference, in 2016.

“AIM was not realized and therefore I’m nervous,” Wörner said. “For me this part of space safety has a special value. [The question is] whether I can convince member states not just to play for competitiveness of their own industries and for inspiration, but also for responsibility.”

This article is from POLITICO Pro: POLITICO’s premium policy service. To discover why thousands of professionals rely on Pro every day, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.


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