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Galileo - a test of Europe's maturity

December 16, 2016

EU leaders have officially launched the satellite-based Galileo navigation system, which means a success for the crisis-hit continent, but provides no reason for them to become bigheaded, says Fabian Schmidt.

Satelliten 5 und 6 für EU-Navigationssystem Galileo
Image: ESA/J. Huart/dpa

Without doubt, the successful launch of Europe's Galileo system is balm to European leaders' battered souls. After years of seemingly never-ending bad news for Europe - including the sovereign debt crisis, the massive influx of refugees, Britain's vote to leave the EU and, only recently, the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo - Galileo's launch must be seen as a positive development.

Deutsche Welle Fabian Schmidt App NEU
DW science editor Fabian SchmidtImage: DW/P.Henriksen

The EU leaders' shared act of launching the satellite navigation system on Friday was one of self-assurance.

Although functioning provisionally until the system's 18 satellites are fully operational, an expected reation to this news would be: "Well done, Europe! - We've stuck it to the Americans, Europe has grown up!"

Right from the beginning, it was the stated goal of the EU to set up a technological rival to the US-based Global Positioning System (GPS). And ever since Europe's leader made the decision, there has been hardly a Galileo statement or press release not mentioning the superiority of the European system due to the civil, non-military nature of the project.

Indeed, the facts are in favor of Galileo: The navigation system is not subject to restrictions like its US counterpart, thus guaranteeing its future clients much higher precision and accuracy. As a result, the system's wider possibilities make for better solutions in fields such as mapping, architecture, autonomous driving and flying, logistics, maritime rescue and geo research, just to name a few. This opens up vast opportunities for startups and inventors, whose new products could spur economic growth as competition boosts business.

Nonsensical GPS debate

However, Europeans should not let Galileo's superiority go to their heads. Their satellite navigation system is far from being a victory of civil soft-power over military might, as some may hope.

There are plenty of reasons why the US military, as well as European NATO members, would harbor concerns about making the high-precision system accessible to the whole world.

It's no secret these days that any technically-versed Tinkerer can buy a GPS-controlled drone kit in a shop and adjust it to meet his own aims. It is only a small step from there to constructing a home-made Cruise Missile. And if a self-styled "Dr. No" can do that, the leader of any rogue state can do it just as easily.

As a backstop, Europe's military allies have reserved the right to jam Galileo's openly accessible bandwidths. Let's all hope and pray that this will never be needed, because it would mean we are at war or in a major crisis. But if Europe continues to live in peace, Galileo could, indeed, provide a major impetus to business, science and research in the years to come.

Technological giant - political dwarf

Due to its economic power, Europe has long been a mature actor in global business. Those in Europe now celebrating the latest development in the continent's technological prowess should be allowed to bask in this success. But between the toasts, there should also be a few moments in which Europe's leaders reflect on their foreign and security policies - past, present and future.

Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict and the massacres committed in the Syrian city of Aleppo should tell them that it's not enough to continue passing the buck to the UN Security Council, which has been dysfunctional for decades.

Further, we should stop letting the Americans do the dirty work, complaining later when they've done it wrong. The excuse that Europe's hands are bound in Syria because it's the responsibility of the Security Council is nonsense. Democratic states across the world - Europe's included - have never been willing to act in Syria. Russia has come to realize this and has shamelessly exploited it.

Trump will force Europe to grow up

The Americans are simply fed up with taking care of the world's hot spots, and repeatedly burning their fingers. After November's presidential elections, they may be even less willing to risk their lives for others.

In view of current geopolitical challenges, it doesn't really matter whether or not Europe's "civil" satellite system is superior to the "military" one of the US. If Europe really wants to grow up, it has to pass litmus tests of a taller order - some in which "soft power" may not be sufficient. Some, in which Europe is forced to substantiate its claim as a champion of universal values with concrete action - some, in which a "military" Galileo might come in handy one day.

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