1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

EU and UK fight over Galileo satellite system

May 15, 2018

In yet another unforeseen consequence of Brexit, the European Union insists that London will no longer automatically be entitled to Galileo data after it leaves the bloc. The implications could be out of this world.

Launching a Galileo satellite from Guayana
Image: ESA

Over the course of the UK's ongoing Brexit negotiations, new and unforeseen hurdles have often popped up. Many of the disputes are local, like the details over the Irish border or the rights of Europeans living in Britain. But some of the disagreements literally reach to the stars, as is the case with the unfinished Galileo global navigation satellite system.

European Union officials in Brussels have told the UK that after they leave the bloc some of Galileo's functions would no longer be available to them. Yet the uproar is about more than simple access. It's about pride, skilled jobs and money. According to a report in the Financial Times, since 2005 the UK has contributed €1.4 billion ($1.66 billion) to the project's budget.

British firms have also built much of the technology and actual equipment. Airbus' UK arm has been a major contributor to the project and currently runs ground control out of Portsmouth and is bidding for an extension of this contract.

Yet after divorce nothing is the same and UK-based companies will suffer because only EU-based firms are allowed to bid for "security sensitive" work on the Galileo project. Suppliers can either move or forego any future work on the project.

A network of thirty new satellites is Europe's answer to America's dominant Global Positioning System
A network of thirty new satellites is Europe's answer to America's dominant Global Positioning System Image: picture-alliance/esa/J. Huart

Was it in the stars?

The Galileo project is the European Union's billion-euro answer to the dominance of America's GPS and Russia's Glonass systems.

The ambitious Prague-based venture depends on the contributions of companies from around Europe and is coordinated by the European Space Agency. The system already provides some services, although it won't be running at full capacity until all of the planned 30 satellites are in orbit and operational in 2020.

Envisioned for civilian use — vehicle positioning or helping find the nearest Italian restaurant — the system unsurprisingly has a more secure encrypted service for sensitive military and search and rescue information. It is this second-tier service for governments that the EU would block.

Going it alone

As a knee-jerk response to the proposed changes, UK officials have threatened less cooperation in general on security and have floated the possibility of creating their own independent system.

Read more: Opinion: Galileo — a test of Europe's maturity

Colin Paynter, UK managing director of Airbus Defence and Space, told lawmakers on May 9 that based on the country's extensive experience in the field, it is possible to develop a wholly new system in four to five years and come in at the lower end of the much-touted £3-5 billion cost estimates floating in the press.

Norway’s EU deal a model for UK?

At the same committee hearing though, Bleddyn Bowen from the University of Leicester, warned of massive cost overruns since the UK could not simply copy Galileo technology regardless where it was created. New systems would need to be developed and as numerous projects have shown budget explosions are more the rule than the exception.

Bowen also pointed out that the whole idea of independence was a charade since Britain would still be dependent on other countries since they have no domestic space launching capabilities.

Keep your friends close

The tit for tat arguments around the satellite system have been slowly simmering to the top. After repeated British treats, Michel Barnier, the EU's head Brexit negotiator, on Monday assured that by leaving the EU, the UK's access to Galileo would be automatically cut. The island nation could only rejoin the system as a third country through a new agreement.

As for blocking non-EU countries' access to work on the satellite program, Barnier also said that the rules were well known and that the UK itself was among the countries to approve such regulations. Despite all this, he nonetheless sees a way forward for the UK pointing to the current Galileo cooperation with the US and Norway.

Read more: SpaceX delays first commercial flight

But like many aspects of the Brexit divorce, the UK wants its Union Jack cake and wants to eat it too. It is demanding unfettered access to all of Galileo's tool and wants to be able to take part in future development of the actual flying hardware and the secure programing — all while being outside of the EU.

In the worst case scenario, the UK will leave the EU with no agreement and simply lose access to Galileo. At the same time the government could try to block UK companies from passing on their designs or ideas, which could cause delays since the system is not complete.

However, in all likelihood the UK will reach an agreement with the EU over the use of Galileo data. Whether it will be able to remain the builder behind the scenes seems less likely. But in the meantime British firms will have to relocate or after March 2019 there may be a failure to launch.

Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.
Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Kherson, June 7, 2023
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage