With Brexit looming, EU and UK tangle over Galileo

June 13, 2018  - By

An increasingly bitter political and economic argument between the United Kingdom (U.K.) and the European Union (EU) has alternately stalled and unfrozen progress on Galileo.

Why does this matter from a defense and security viewpoint? Because it’s all about access to Galileo’s Public Regulated Service (PRS), the military-grade service and signal — in addition to billions of pounds and euros.

The byzantine maneuvering on both sides may have further implications, in the form of a much-expanded role for the current European GNSS Agency (GSA), with a corresponding reduction in funding scope for the European Space Agency (ESA).

ESA is not directly affected by the Brexit brouhaha, but indirectly, the impacts mount and extend. ESA is technically independent of the EU, but acts as the union’s procurement body for space programs. It is run by the 22 member states on the ESA council — which crucially includes the U.K., as well as non-EU members Norway and Switzerland. Thus, the Brits, while exiting the union in March 2019, will continue to play a voting role in the space agency.

In an second-round gambit, the U.K. had threatened to use its veto on the ESA council to delay procurement of future Galileo satellites. This was seen as an attempt to bring the EU into negotiations over U.K. access to the highly encrypted Galileo PRS.

A navigation and timing signal restricted to use by authorized government agencies, armed forces, police, emergency and other security services, the PRS is designed to be robust to jamming and spoofing and available even in times of crisis.

Under EU rules, only EU member states can access or work on the PRS. Similar to GPS M-code, PRS could be said to be the prime motivating factor for the origins of the European GNSS: the desire, some would say the compelling requirement, to have a military-grade signal under one’s own control.

The U.K. says it will encounter “significant gaps” in a wide range of areas including prisoner transfers, asset recovery, sharing of financial intelligence, victim compensation and access to criminal records for child protection vetting, should it be shut out from the PRS. This doesn’t begin to reveal the real reason: the ability to conduct military, security and defense operations confidently undertaken with a secure and enrypted GNSS signal.

The European Commission maintains that the U.K. will have to “apply” to use the PRS, like any other non-EU country, tacitly as a “foreign entity.” PRS is for EU member states only.

U.K. companies such as CGI U.K. have developed much of the programming and coding of the PRS signal. Current EU rules bar all U.K. companies from bidding on new contracts unless they transfer their work to EU countries before Brexit. The EU wants CGI U.K. to hand its encryption security intellectual property to the Franco-Italian firm Thales Alenia Espace.

This would poke Britain’s defense ministry where it hurts most: access to the key source codes, and a measure of security in military, defense and police operations. The U.K. government also wishes to retain the encryption expertise and personnel, rather than see them outsourced.

Four Galileo satellites placed in the payload container prior to December 2017 launch, which brought the total Galileo constellation to 22. (Image courtesy of ESA)

Whither GSA?

In a separate but closely related debate within the EU, a strategic repositioning is proposed for the GSA: renaming and remaking it into the EU Agency for the Space Programme. This would not only greatly enlarge its sphere of activity and authority, it could create two sparring space agencies in Europe, one wholly under the control of the EU and one with the maverick U.K. on its ruling council.

A draft EU document states ESA’s decision-making procedures “cannot lead to a call into question of the decisions of the [European] Commission or the European Space Agency within the framework of the actions and space programmes of the union.”

ESA is naturally bitterly opposed to its parent organization creating a rival. It has long struggled — behind closed doors — with its semi-independent, semi-subservient role to the EU, which after all holds the ultimate purse strings.

Some in Europe see indications that the GSA rebadging could lead to a gradual transfer of space funding from ESA to the newly rechristened agency if EU discontent rises. “A creep in power” was the term used by one official.

The EU has long expressed concerns over ESA’s governance of the funds handed to it by the EU for space projects. The long stall in Galileo getting up a full head of steam, a period that could be said to have extended from 2002 to 2008 or thereabouts, was seen by some atop the EU as evidence of ESA over-extension: technically expert but fiscally untrained or unqualified.

Opening Salvos

In what now appears to be a dead issue, the U.K. had first demanded reimbursement for the €1 billion it contributed to Galileo. The EU rejected that out of hand, saying it would not negotiate “under threat.”

In a follow-up, the U.K. claimed that while it wished to continue participating in Galileo, it could well start up its own GNSS if it did not receive adequate access to Galileo PRS. The EU stuck to its guns, so to speak: “Third countries [and their companies] cannot participate in the development of security-sensitive matters.”

The U.K. has also bruited blocking Galileo from use of ground tracking stations in British overseas territories, such as the Falklands.

A U.K. minister stated: “The U.K. genuinely wants to remain a major player in the project, with privileged ongoing access from outside the EU, and views its capabilities and contribution to date as giving it the right to that ticket.”

A European spokesperson countered: “For the EU, the decision to leave inevitably entails relegation to a different role and status in the project, and, let’s be candid, offers scope for EU-located firms to take contractual business away from U.K. ones.”

Oh, what a tangled web these mortals weave.

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About the Author: Alan Cameron

Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.