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SWGL Fanshop Edition One

#SpaceWatchGL Opinion: ESA-EU relationship and ESA transformation priorities in the new ESA Agenda

by Christoph Beischl, ISPL

The ESA Agenda 2025 – Opinions by members of the SichTRaum network

Credits: ESA Agenda 2025

On April 7 this year, one month after Dr. Josef Aschbacher took office as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) new Director-General, the ESA Agenda 2025 was released.
This document contains the agenda of the new Director-General for the agency over/for the next four years. It outlines five priorities, which will have many long-term implications:

  • Strengthening ESA-EU relations,
  • Boosting space commercialization for a green and digital Europe,
  • Developing space for safety and security,
  • Addressing critical program challenges,
  • Completing the internal transformation of ESA.

Although many of them come as no surprise, the urgency assigned to dealing with these priorities is unexpected – and welcome.
In this series of opinion pieces, members of the SichTRaum network provide their thoughts on some of the priorities, taking into account the broader context of the ongoing space sector transformations. SichTRaum is a network of researchers from various disciplines who look at human space exploration from the perspective of peace and security. It is an acronym for “Sicherheit und Technologie im Weltraum”, in English: “Security and Technology in Outer Space”. Find more information here.

Flags of ESA and the European Union

The ESA (European Space Agency) Agenda 2025 makes for an interesting read for anyone participating in the European space sector. It outlines five priorities for ESA until 2025. These priorities give rise to a broad range of issues, many of which have been addressed by colleagues in other recent opinion pieces.

This Opinion highlights issues and provides some thoughts concerning the priorities of “Strengthen[ing] ESA-EU Relations” and “Completing the ESA transformation”.

1) The Agenda is likely right in asserting that a stronger ESA-EU relationship can support “the development of a space sector at the service of European policies, citizens and industry”, and foster Europe’s political clout, safety and security status, and socioeconomic progress. However, as the Agenda indicates, an even closer engagement between ESA and the EU exacerbates the considerable challenge for ESA to retain a workable, long-lasting balance between serving as an implementing agency of its Member States, as well as of the EU. All this further requires appropriate interaction with the national space agencies of its Member States and the recently established European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA). The situation is not helped by the fact that not all EU Member States are ESA Member States, and three of the 22 present ESA Member States, namely Norway, Switzerland and the UK, are not EU Member States. Also, the EU has a complex administrative framework, and is becoming more assertive in the space sector.

ESA’s double role towards its Member States and the EU needs to be preserved. An ESA decision to give prevalence to engagement with the EU, or even to work towards transforming ESA into an EU body, would come with considerable costs in terms of expertise, funds and European integration. For one, ESA in its double role provides all involved with access to a much broader range of scientific and technological expertise than an EU-focused ESA could. Such decision would lead to the great loss of technological and scientific research and development activities available in Norway, Switzerland and the UK. Similarly, ESA’s double role enables access to more potential funding sources than an agency that lacks the close participation of Norway, Switzerland and the UK, all of which are wealthy countries and proud of their space sector involvement. Lastly, since ESA space missions usually require long-term investment and collaborative engagement, ESA facilitates close interaction between its EU and non-EU Member States while they might be in political conflict elsewhere, e.g. as a consequence of Brexit or the recent Swiss-EU disagreements. In this sense, ESA plays a role in the European integration process.

2) The Agenda promotes the streamlining of ESA’s internal processes. Such streamlining needs to be carefully done and well-crafted. Otherwise, the scales of decision-making within ESA could be tipped in favour of its EU Member States for the foreseeable future, potentially leading to considerable discord between them and non-EU Member States. While there might be benefits, e.g. reduced decision-making time and less administrative costs, resulting from the streamlining, non-EU Member States’ influence in the agency could be severely impacted. For example, a heavily sped up internal process can put a lot of stress on the ability of the agency’s non-EU Member States to follow all major internal deliberations, and consequently to make their voices heard. It stands to reason that the EU Member States, which are in an overwhelming majority within ESA, are better situated to share the work burden required for expedited internal processes. Moreover, ESA’s EU Member States can potentially request assistance of EU-related bodies and connections in understanding all the consequences arising for them in dealing with complicated matters within set timeframes.

3) Relating to both issues discussed above, ESA needs to remember that its choice of words matter beyond the agency. In particular, ESA needs to clarify in its current and upcoming political dialogues and comprehensive analyses what it means when it speaks of “Europe” and “European”, terms used throughout the Agenda. Without such clarification, there is a danger that nationalistic politicians in EU and non-EU Member States misuse such references as political ammunition, e.g. by – falsely – declaring that certain ESA missions impose EU integration through the backdoor. Events such as Brexit, the Corona crisis and the emergence of a far-right political party in Germany have laid bare how easily politicians in Europe are able to misuse words for their lies and construe an ‘alternative reality’.

Overall, ESA is a wonderful achievement of European collaboration beyond the EU. For the benefit of Europe at large, it is highly recommended that all involved actors take the issues outlined above serious in their current and upcoming deliberations to maintain ESA as a true European asset.

Christoph Beischl; Photo courtesy of him

Christoph Beischl is a Research Fellow at the London Institute of Space Policy and Law (ISPL) focusing in his research on space programmes and related decision-making in East Asia and the UK, international space cooperation, space terminology, and Space Safety and Security. He is further a Physics Academic Visitor at Imperial College London and a member of the International Institute of Space Law. He served as Co-Lead of the Space Law and Policy Project Group of the Space Generation Advisory Council from 2016-2019. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, having examined the potential to establish an Asian Space Agency. Prior to that, he completed a Magister Artium in Political Science (Major), Law and Modern and Contemporary History (Minors) at the University of Munich, Germany. He is a strong proponent of Online Privacy, and a passionate student of the Chinese language.

 

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